Facebook is a dismal substitute for face- to-face conversations: Madan Birla

Facebook is a dismal substitute for face- to-face conversations: Madan Birla

India Blooms News Service | 23 Feb 2017

A former MD at FedEx, Madan Birla's books have been widely appreciated by industry experts. IBNS Correspondent Sudipto Maity caught up with the writer during his recent tour in Kolkata, where he promoted his new book 'Enjoy Balance and Unleash Creativity'. Excerpts:

Let's have the formal introduction. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and brought up in New Delhi. I received my B.E. in Mechanical Engineering from BITS Pilani, M.S. in Industrial Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, and M.S. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Memphis. I worked as the Managing Director at FedEx for 22 years, first in the Long-Range Planning division and later was named Managing Director in the company’s Leadership Institute. I have worked closely with Fred Smith. Now I facilitate Executive education classes at Kellogg, Dartmouth, Univ. of Miami, among other prestigious business schools around the world. I believe in giving back to the community, which led to the establishment of the Indian Community Fund for Greater Memphis (ICFGM), that funded the Gandhi exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum.  I live with his wife Shashi in Collierville, Tennessee. We have two kids, living in New York and Chicago.

Did you train as an author? How did writing happen?

No, I didn’t. My professional training was in the fields of engineering, business and psychology. I spent the last three years of my tenure at FedEx in the Leadership Institute,where I thoroughly enjoyed facilitating leadership training classes. After leaving FedEx, I frequently had speaking engagements in Silicon Valley, and one question would invariably come up, “You worked closely with Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx. How did he build such a great company?” I wrote my first book, ‘FedEx Delivers,’ to answer that very question. The positive reception to the book worldwide encouraged me to continue writing. I’m at a stage in life where I could freely ask myself, “If I could do anything in the world professionally, what would I like to do most?” I enjoy reading, thinking, writing, and speaking. Being an author allows me to indulge in all of these.It also allows me to make time for golf, going out with friends, taking family vacations, joining my wife to watch Hindi movies, etc.

In your book you speak about how easy it is for someone to drift away in a fast paced world. What should one do to counter such a thing?

The first step is to recognize that ‘Balance’ is not optional. One pays a high price for the lack of balance in terms of what matters most – health, relationships, and effectiveness at work. The three basic principles I’ve used successfully and described in the book are: (1) Visualize whole,(2) Start small, and (3) Act now. We get so busy with our TO-DO list and work related obligations, that we lose sight of the big picture - life itself! After visualizing what a balanced week would look like, I counsel people to choose just one activity. One small change, e.g., I’ll go for a walk one day next week, or as a family we’ll do one fun activity. Share that goal with all the stakeholders. Act now, because before you know it the kids will be all grown up and leaving home for college. Leading a balanced life is an ongoing process, enjoying your life journey. The ‘Unleashing Creativity’ part of the book helps readers see that taking time for a fulfilling personal life will in fact help them in enjoying a successful career,because creative ideas are among the top demands of bosses, and thus key to professional success in today’s fast changing economy.

Do you think with the advent of technology, we are better suited to cope with quick changes? Or does it not help too much?

Like anything else, technology has its advantages and pitfalls. Social media can be a good tool for keeping in touch with family and friends, but Facebook is a dismal substitute for face to face conversations and shared experiences. We’re all trying to achieve success, which society has largely defined in terms of career and professional achievement - a deficient marker.  A successful and well-lived life is when you look back and the memories make you smile. Memories are shared experiences with the people we love.

Your book has been praised by industry insiders. Is there a particular comment or instance you can recall as special?

There are many, many instances from the workshop participants. In fact, what gives me the most satisfaction is listening to their stories of how after attending the workshops, they made a life-balance enhancing choice, allowing them to share in their children’s joy; make time for some fun in their stressful lives. One busy and ‘successful’ executive said that it helped save his marriage. In one single workshop or two-hour book read, I’m not expecting to completely transform someone’s life, but if I can help my fellow life travelers experience a little more joy during the coming week, that’s enough motivation to carry on, and a big source of joy for me.

Coming back to your writing, how do you go about it? How do you zero down on the topic you want to discuss? Is there a particular method to your 'madness'?

My background in engineering actually helps me in defining the problem/questions I want to answer for the readers - “What are the root causes?” Then searching for answers to them. In my latest book, ‘Enjoy Balance,’ I draw upon my own struggles and successes in leading a balanced life, as well as deep conversations that took place during my ‘Leading a Balanced Life’ workshops over a period of 20 years. The topic is drawn from my experience and interest in innovation, creativity, and balance. On average, I read six to eight hours a day and make notes of any material that I find interesting. I file the notes in folders for future reference. When I get ready to write a chapter I go back to these folders and reference materials that I’ve read on the subject. To get broader perspectives I interview lots of people from different walks of life. The overall process is a highly enjoyable and illuminating activity.

How was Kolkata as a venue? What do you make of the talent here?

My brothers and extended family live in Kolkata. So, Kolkata is home and a place I look forward to visiting almost every year. I’ve enjoyed speaking at IIM-Kolkata and to professional groups in town. I find them very engaging and knowledgeable. Yes, each time the pollution and traffic seems to get worse than the year before. During this year’s trip I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Kolkata Literary Festival/Book Fair and CIMA International Arts week. I found great talent at both of these events.

Mr. Birla, as someone from the US, what do you make of the new H-1B visa rule. What effect will it have in years to come?

I think you’re referring to the news story about the proposed rule changes following Donald Trump’s election. Any changes will have to be approved by the U.S. Congress before they can become law. As you may have noted, most Technology companies are not in favor of these changes. I think that will play a big role in what Congress eventually approves. Your guess is as good as mine as to what will be the final outcome. Looking ahead, I think U.S. will continue to need technology professionals from India and other countries.

As a business visionary, are you happy with the Indian startup ecosystem?

First let me qualify my remarks that I’ve a very limited exposure to the Indian startup ecosystem. On this trip I did spend some time with 30 startups’ managers and professionals in Bangalore. I was very encouraged with the breadth of space the startups were covering. I also heard frustrations from some of them. Those of us who have achieved some ‘success’ in the U.S. are not any smarter than the professionals here. The system allowed us to excel. Certainly, the ecosystem here can be better and more supportive.

For years India has suffered due to ‘braindrain’, according to you what should the GoI (Government of India) do in order to prevent something similar from taking place?

Again, this is an area I’m not too qualified to address. I’ve spoken to students at IIT, BITS-Pilani, IIM and other colleges in India and found the students there to be enthused about the opportunities available in India. One observation, if I may make one, is that improvements in infrastructure –the roads, civic amenities, and pollution control would help a lot, both in creating improved business conditions, and a better quality of life. I’m very impressed with the new airports in India; quite comparable to the nicer airports around the world.

Catch up with Sudipto on Twitter: @thingsDeepsays

Facebook is a dismal substitute for face- to-face conversations: Madan Birla

India Blooms News Service
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