The Learned Life

We live in a connected world where ignorance is not an excuse. KV Kamath is a case in point.

Charles Assisi

What do Ramsey Musallam, a prominent chemistry teacher in the US, and K.V. Kamath, an acclaimed Indian banker, have in common? Short answer—they believe in life-long learning. "Else, I fear rapid change will make me obsolete," says the 66-year-old Kamath. "To stay relevant, I have to learn all the time."

Musallam teaches at various institutions across the US. His stated mission is to "promote inquiry, critical thinking and inspire a love for learning". In May 2010, he was diagnosed with an aneurysm at the base of his thoracic aorta. As much as he "freaked out" on reading the report, his surgeon remained remarkably calm. It prompted him to engage in conversations with his surgeon on the prognosis and potential outcomes. It put him at peace and he went through a successful surgery that tackled the life-threatening situation. Through all of this, the teacher in him picked three lessons on what it takes to learn.

Lesson #1: Curiosity comes first.
Lesson #2: Embrace the mess. Learning is ugly.
Lesson #3: Practise reflection. What we do is important. It deserves our care, but it also deserves our revision.

He shared these learnings at a TED conference last year. The talk can be viewed on . Built on the back of his experience, these are lessons Kamath subscribes to as well.
Curiosity compels Kamath to take 10 days off every year and devote them to learning at universities that offer courses removed from banking. "People don't place a premium on interdisciplinary thinking and learning," he says. And curiosity compelled him to look closely at models deployed by Jet Airways (India) Ltd and the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels.

In building ICICI Bank Ltd into the entity it is today, Kamath remembers engaging in a conversation with a colleague many years ago. They wondered why is it a stewardess on Jet Airways greets each passenger who gets on board with a smile?

For that matter, why is it if a guest asks for directions at any Ritz-Carlton property, they aren't directed, but led to where they want to go? Everybody, from the bellboy to the hotel manager, follows the rule.

The stewardess at Jet Airways told Kamath's colleague their research on passenger behaviour indicated that when greeted with a smile, people lower their guard. For instance, if a flight is delayed or the meal they expect is not on board, as a thumb rule, most people take it in their stride. In the absence of a smile, even minor deficiencies are viewed as offensive, people get boorish, and their behaviour permeates to others on the flight, making it a harrowing experience for the crew. At Ritz-Carlton, the key Kamath observed is empowerment. A bellboy is empowered to take time off from whatever it is he has been assigned to do if a guest walks up to him with a request.

Having studied both these cases closely, Kamath took a call and introduced the idea of lobby managers at all ICICI Bank branches. Trained by professionals from the hospitality business to greet customers with a smile, they ask around if anybody needs assistance, and help make their dealings at the bank easier. "It's a soft skill we picked up because we were curious about the workings of those in the hospitality business," says Kamath.

In much the same way, he is on the same page as Musallam is on Lesson #2 that learning is messy and ugly. To reiterate, Kamath talks of the time when the Internet was in its infancy. In 1997, McKinsey had invited him to a conference in the US to discuss this animal and how it could disrupt the future. On the trip, he met young people hacking furiously into the online world, thinking up ideas and hitting the market with products at warp speed. Often times they'd fail. At others they'd strike gold. How, he wondered. Close examination later, Kamath saw there were three traits similar to all of them.

1. They just got into the game. It didn't matter whether or not they had a chief technology officer in a technology-powered landscape. They just figured things out as they went along.

2. All of them worked under severe constraints.

3. Everybody was clear their ideas had to translate into products in 90 days on the outside.

Kamath called up headquarters, summoned the team working on ICICI Direct, a trading engine which the bank then planned to roll-out two years down the line. The team was told start-ups in the US work out of garages under constraints of all kinds and manage to deliver in 90 days. "Why can't you? You've been at it for 30 days already. You've got 60 days more to do it," he recollects telling them.

The team was astounded at the audacity of the demand. Left with no choice though, they got down to the task and delivered the engine. It wasn't to specification. There were flaws, deficiencies, compromises and issues to be sorted out. "But we discovered ways of doing things we wouldn't otherwise have," says Kamath. ICICI Direct is now among the world's busiest trading engines.

And like Musallam, Kamath speaks on the significance of reflecting and revising. There was this once he came across a article in a magazine on how the Tatagroup was creating a brand identity for itself. "I asked myself, what is identity?" he says. To understand the idea and the implications, he took the pedal off everything else and immersed himself in it for six months.
Much reading, conversations and introspection with people later, he started asking hard questions. If I were to look around all of my offices, the people working there, the communications that emanate from them, including minutiae like fonts people use in official correspondence, are all of it bound by a common thread? Much to his dismay, the answer was no.

Kamath went a layer deeper and asked people around what is the core value they think ICICI Bank stands for? Pretty much everybody said aggressive. Seventy-five per cent of the company's workforce thought it negative. As he asked the question to people higher-up the hierarchy, they thought it positive. This saddened him further.

To put the house in place, Kamath did two things. On the one hand, he engaged the services of an Ahmedabad-based branding agency to create a unifying personality for the company. On the other hand, he got in behavioural researchers into the organization to study how the bank functioned, and help them transform from aggressive to gentle and understanding.

"It was a conscious process. We saw the benefits of it later because we were seeking answers, didn't assume we knew everything, learning all the time from people who knew more than us, and introspecting," he says.

Because Musallam thinks how to learn all the time, he is among the most sought after chemistry teachers in the US. And because Kamath expends most of his time learning from various disciplines, ICICI Bank is now the largest private bank in the country.

Between the stories both these men tell, a strong case emerges to live the learned life. What makes the case stronger still is that we live in a connected world where massively open online courses are available to anybody with access to the Internet. You don't have to travel to a premier university to earn a premier degree.

Instead, log online to places like, or among the many learning platforms, sign up for free to study at a time and place of your choosing. And if it is to further your career, these platforms have relationships with various universities to offer certified degrees on completion of their courses by paying a nominal fee.

Per chance you think the fees aren't worth your time, spare a moment to what Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, famously said: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

This article was first published in Mint on Nov 07, 2014. Reproduced with permission.

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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