Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where Do I Go From Here

My career is at a crossroad right now. Or, so I feel.

I have spent exactly 15 years doing various things - mostly in education business and mostly setting up franchise networks. My roles, well mostly, as it is today, involved helping independent entrepreneurs setting up training centres in small towns and villages in South Asia. So, this meant doing everything from sales to managing human resource, managing finance to writing contracts. Like small businesses do. Watching over everything, being careful - lest the business slip out of control. And, being able to be optimistic, dream about things and believing in the greater purpose of the business - changing lives and whole towns as a consequence - was an essential part of the job.

I must admit that I took my job seriously, possibly a little too seriously. I lived and breathed my job. I was fairly good - this is possibly because I had enormous respect for those entrepreneurs who ran these education centres and made things possible. I know for a fact that this allowed me to see the entire business from a different perspective and I could escape the trap of zero-sum thinking that most franchisers get beset with. I must admit that it did not always help - sometimes, I was expected to short-sell and push unnecessary products, which I refused to do, and while this endeared me to the franchisees and even kept the business healthy, this did not always impress my bosses.

I was so enamoured to the idea of entrepreneurship by watching these businesses succeed that I even tried my hand being an entrepreneur. I started a company, which was possibly a bit ahead of its time, though I had to take financing from someone else. In my experience of watching businesses from the sideline did not teach me one golden rule: That business is primarily, and solely, for earning money. The other thing I missed, thankfully, is the great folly of business thinking - it is who provides the money, owns the company. While I learnt the first rule hands on, the second came to bite me soon - when I realized I got the formula wrong, I left and went back to employment.

That moment of realization was the first defining moment in my career.

I went back to do what I did best - selling education franchises. This time I worked outside India, with people from different cultures. While this was supposed to be enormously more difficult, my respect for entrepreneurs and my education of going through a failure helped me enormously. I could close myself off from everything else in the world and focus on the job at hand, as the taste of failure was still fresh in my mind. And, I built relationships based on respect - this is one thing that comes back to you as you give it - and soon I was more comfortable doing my job outside India than I ever was in India.

This isn't supposed to be my life's story, but a thought where I go from here. So, I shall skip the chronology and jump straight into today. Of course, in between I have done some brave things - or rather things which were one part brave and three parts foolish - like migrating to Britain without a job in hand or any specific plans or sufficient money. It worked, somewhat, again thanks to my learning through failure and respect for other individuals. I think while my hair is going gray, if I can keep this respect thing going, it will keep myself young and allow me to learn a new thing everyday. Of course, after coming to Britain and somewhat scraping by the first few months, and then struggling through a salesman's career, I learnt how good my experience actually was. I was almost ready for anything. I was conditioned for hard work, practised in the integrity that one must maintain if one is working with franchisees and ready to learn, ready for surprises.

Now, four years down the line, I feel I am reaching another crossroad, just like the year 2000, when I had to take decisions on what I do next. This does not obviously mean that I am planning to leave my current employment like last time and start doing something new. Not the least. At the hindsight, I have realized that leaving that point of time was a mistake, though things turned out well thereafter. Also, one can not run away all the time - sometimes, even if things are not great, staying and taking the hit is a good way to do things.

By crossroads, I mean I am at a decision time. I must think through what I shall be doing for next five to ten years. Not necessarily I have to start doing these things tomorrow morning, but I must set the ball in motion. In my mind, this is possibly the single most important task I have at hand right now.

Of course, I am thinking beyond my current employment, and I see nothing wrong in that. The English training business is a great project with lots of potential, and admittedly, I learnt a lot working on it. This has been a fantastic opportunity, as it came. However, I have been fairly open about the fact that I saw this as something which I shall do for a couple of years, while I take choose my career path for the next level. I of course do want to see its start-up phase through, but I have plenty of time left for that too. I have also consciously worked on creating management structures in every country that I am looking into, and a clear succession route when I leave. So, I am entering the final 12 months of this project with optimism and a clear conscience - I sure want to leave this in good shape and in able hands.

This is something I was told in the past, and am reminded again, then what would I achieve by hanging around? There is a point in this thinking - the first two years in such an ambitious project is bound to be difficult, and we won't even make much money. Consequently, my expectations of financial gains out of this project is fairly limited. And, as everyone knows, idealism does not pay. So - what will then be my takeaway from this project?

Many, I would say. As I see it, this is my final two years of business school. I learn to make a business successful - what else can be better than this education? I already had my lesson in failure and this time, I wish to have one in success, and in the process, discover my true calling. I get invaluable opportunities to learn, to reconnect back to India and to see a bit of the world. I could not have expected a better test than this of my abilities.

So, what would I do next? I have actually thought about multiple opportunities, and I have to take a final decision quite soon:

A. I can take a year's sabbatical next year and go to a good business school to complete an MBA. I thought of Warwick or Durham, if I can get through. The problem is that I am too old for an MBA, and this is more like pursuing a degree when I can gather far greater understanding of business by actually working. Besides, behind this MBA thinking, sits my desire to go back to a corporate job. I am not convinced that I am cut out for that kind of sedate, predictable life.

B. I have been working on few different ideas and I can possibly take a plunge and start a business. This has always been there in my mind, and I thought one advantage I have is a common-sense feel of new technologies. Being so close to business problems, and my professional education and exposure gives me a fairly unusual combination of business skills and technology knowledge, and it would be a good idea to attempt to monetize this. However, as I have learnt from the past, it isn't easy to raise money for a business and remain independent. In fact, most probably, it is impossible to do so. So, next time I try this, I would like to ensure that the money for the business comes from myself or from people who I know and trust, not from any speculator who thought my idea will give him/her better returns than investing in petroleum futures.

C. I am also thinking of going into an independent career. I need some pre-work for this, but I am estimating that I have fairly non-standard skills and exposure, and it is possible, with some additional training and preparation, to float an independent consulting career. I joined CIM with that aim, and still pursuing my Post-Grad studies. So, hopefully, in 12 months, I shall be ready to take the plunge.

D. The other idea is what I would love to do. I am thinking of leaving the job/career route altogether and go to work in development management. The route will be similar to option A, just that I won't do an MBA but take a Development Management course. I have a Post-grad degree in economics, another in Marketing, a fair idea about technology, experience in entrepreneurship and come from the poorest part of the world. I have worked at the grassroots, travelled extensively and speak at least three languages. Hopefully, this can make a fairly compelling CV. Just that, if I take this route, I have to start living an unusual life, staying in difficult places and earning a lot less money. But this is where my heart is, and just like last time, I may actually want to pursue this.

This blog is my diary and I would love to live my life as an open book. This is an interesting experience, talking about plans, feelings and ideas openly to myself, or to a group of strangers, or to a set of faceless friends. However, living an open book life has its advantages - like meeting someone who knows all about your dreams - and it is indeed rewarding and exceptional in this identity-crazy world. But I tell you my plan, and will tell you how I go along - whether you know me or do not really does not matter - as long as you know that life is a journey, and the pleasure of life is in telling the stories and fables than anything else.

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