Corporate life and the Guru-Shishya principle

In the Corporate world, a learning organization is seen as one that facilitates and encourages its employees to continuously seek knowledge and learning. The organization invests in training programs (external and internal) and places at its employees’ disposal multiple knowledge platforms and tools. By doing so, the organization hopes that innovation will ensue, keeping it ahead of the market at all times.  The system (and by and large Corporate Culture today) assumes self-motivation and learning. Question is, is it enough?

If everyone was to be a self-starter, an organization would be staffed with a populace of such smart people that sooner rather than later, it won’t be able to hold them all. Because there is only limited room at the top of the ladder and only that much money an organization can hand out as performance rewards. And anyway, what are the chances of an organization attracting such a pool of people?

There is that and then there is also the fact that there are many, quite intelligent, people out there who nevertheless need guidance in understanding the materials given to them.  Such people may not actively seek answers to questions they may have due to a lack of confidence or fear that they may be derided or scorned.

That’s where it becomes important for organizations to develop and consciously cultivate a guru-shishya kind of culture in corporate life.

One where organizations call for bosses (I actually hate that term but am using it here as it is easy to relate to) to mentor and nurture their subordinates, helping them realize their inherent potential. And, for that matter, helping them develop their personalities to become more seeking, confident and secure in their ability to learn and perform.

In traditional Indian culture, the relationship between the guru (teacher) and shishya (the student) was a revered one. It was revered because the guru was much more than a trainer and imparter of knowledge. He became a parent of sorts and literally, custodian of the young impressionable minds in his care, teaching them about life and helping them realize where their calling lay.

While the system no doubt had its pitfalls, the idea of such a guiding hand is still one that appeals. Why do we mourn the death of a parent more than any other? Isn’t it because we fear the vacuum left behind by an ultimate protector, leaving us to cope on our own? Isn’t that what many of us miss in corporate life? The security of feeling a kind, caring hand on our heads?

I was lucky to have experienced such mentors in my career. Be it a Madhur Shorey who advised me on corporate expectations and protocol, practically dictating the letter he told me to write thanking Chintamani Rao (and Stanley Pinto – see my blog titled Trying a Near-Death Experience) for the opportunity to interview with Lintas. Or, amongst a few others, the man who I call my guru in Advertising – Ravi Gupta.

Ravi was truly a class apart. He was pretty much a father to the crowd that he gathered around him in Trikaya (now Grey). I can’t speak for the rest (perhaps they will speak for themselves on this blog page) but I owe Ravi a great deal.

Ravi was the one who used to rap me on the knuckles when I used to discuss creative and take me back to the drawing board saying, “What’s the strategy?” And he never left me alone to figure it out. It was learning by doing, guided step-by-step by a master strategist.

When I didn’t have answers to Ravi’s questions, he would come with me to the client. In my career, I have encountered very few clients who know how to issue an exciting brief.  Ravi taught me the art of extracting a good brief and using it build a great strategy.

Ravi was also the one who advised me to start reading The Economic Times every day if I truly wanted to understand the bigger picture from where strategy must flow.

It wasn’t all about work. Ravi used to gently probe and draw us out on our personal issues if he thought we were troubled about something. And, he was generous and fearless in sharing his own experiences. I think it was more to let us know that no one person is alone in the challenges life throws out. I still remember debating with Ravi on the existence of God.

I think it was because Ravi was such a great mentor and caring man that talent flourished in Trikaya and continued to attract more talent in droves. Those days Trikaya was known for allowing great advertising to be developed and equally for enjoying a fantastic success rate in clients accepting the campaigns presented to them. So much so, that clients who wanted great advertising came knocking on the agency’s doors.

Ravi was my guru! Unfortunately, the very term now has different connotations. 

Perhaps it’s time to restore the true meaning of the word by bringing in the phrase guru-shishya.

Why am I saying this? Because, I think that the era where managers would take a personal interest in helping a youngster or colleague to understand and navigate working life is on the decline.

I am sure such managers still exist but in an increasingly competitive, high-pressure work environment, it really does seem that employees are faced with a swim or sink environment!


This blog is dedicated to Ravi Gupta – an advertising great and human being extraordinaire 

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