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What to do when technical upskilling is no longer enough to stay ahead

In his new book, Ravi Venkatesan talks about why certifications mean less now and how to prepare for a volatile world

Ravi Venkatesan, former chairperson of Microsoft India.
Ravi Venkatesan, former chairperson of Microsoft India. (mint)

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How do you transition and cope with changes and disruptions during a pandemic? That’s the question Ravi Venkatesan’s latest book What The Heck Do I Do With My Life?: How To Flourish In Our Turbulent Times attempts to answer. Venkatesan, who’s been the chairperson of Microsoft India, Bank of Baroda, and Cummins India, says that what worked for him may no longer apply today as the world has changed drastically. What will help, though, is cultivating the agility to learn.

In an interview, Venkatesan discusses why technical upskilling is not enough when it comes to adapting to future disruptions, why the current leadership programmes are flawed, and the need to cultivate non-tangible assets. Edited excerpts:

Upskilling has been a buzzword for some time now. Why do you believe it’s not enough?

This sort of learning (massive open online courses) is what I call single loop learning. You are learning technical skills, which are useful right now to help you in your profession. It’s a good thing to do. People are trying to figure out what are the hot skills that will lead to hot jobs and trying to keep abreast. That’s a very positive thing and they are all useful but not useful enough because the goalposts are moving. So, I am suggesting focusing on skills that are more likely to be durable. I call these meta or super skills like learning agility, entrepreneurial mindset, people skills and leadership.

So we need to focus and go beyond formal education and degrees?

The school system is still important for certain foundational skills like literacy, numeracy, social skills, and in some school systems you learn discipline and character. Beyond that, it’s the experience of work and life that’s crucial, which is why more and more employers are beginning to focus on aptitude tests rather than degrees. Unless your degree is really from a top-notch school, it’s worth less and less.

Also, if you look at the people today creating new companies, innovating, a large number of them are from ordinary academic backgrounds. So, pedigree was useful in the past where you needed to go find a job. Today, there are many more avenues and pathways to success, and therefore, pedigree and certification mean less.

In the book, you mention the gap in having better leaders. What are the challenges you see in the current process of nurturing leaders?

The whole system is completely flawed. The fundamental premise of all these (leadership) programs is “let us pick our high potential people”. The problem is organizations are confusing performance with potential. They are looking at a high performer and invest in her. Next year, the person’s performance drops, she’s out of the programme. The person is the same, their potential hasn’t changed.

The other issue is that people can never become ready for anything unless you throw them into the job and they grow to fill it. If I look at all the things I have done, I wasn’t qualified for every single one of them. I got my first big break as managing director of Tata Cummins when I was 32 and the reason was nobody else wanted it. So, any of the things I have done, I have not been ready for it. I became ready by being in the shoes.

What you need to do is get a large number of people taking on challenges and then watch them. You will see some giving up, some who don’t even try, and others who struggle and try to make a success of it, the strivers. You should focus on the strivers. You can access this with tests and annual performance reviews.

Venkatesan's new book
Venkatesan's new book

Why is it important to grow intangible assets?

People only think about their assets in terms of financial assets but that’s the tip of the iceberg. The main part is all the intangible assets such as reputation, networks, relationships, and other soft factors. The world is changing rapidly and therefore, the most interesting thing going forward will be how we deal with more transitions in a better and successful way. The intangible assets will cushion you against shocks and they make you more portable. I think this is a very important idea for all of us to cultivate.

In hindsight, is there anything you felt you could have done differently or added in the book?

If there was one thing I might have highlighted more explicitly is that we underestimate what we can accomplish through grittiness. My life story is one of triumph of effort over talent. My resume may show only accomplishments and successes but there have been about a lot of micro-experiments (some of which succeeded, many of which failed), setbacks, struggles, efforts, etc, in personal and professional life.

I have certainly been luckier than many but there has been no shortage of dealing with things that didn’t work out the way you wished it would have. In fact, I was 47 before I figured out the person I was going to spend my life with.


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