Ravi Venkatesan offers a novel piece of advice for those seeking success in any aspect of their life. “Develop a personal board of directors,” he says.

The idea is pretty simple: Put together a group of people that cares about you, and who can help you and advice you at any point of time on how to navigate your career and your life. They are people you respect for their sagacity, wisdom and experience, and who you can discuss and debate with objectively thereby helping you to take a decision on an issue that you are facing. The group should include people you can rely on to offer you sound advice or simply to be a sounding board for your ideas.

Ravi, too, has a personal board of directors. “About 25 of them,” he says, in an exclusive interview to Friday.

Clearly, they were some of the best he could find, if his career trajectory is any indication.

With a BTech from IIT Bombay and an MBA from Harvard, he was Chairman of Microsoft India and co-chairman of Infosys Ltd. At present Board Chair of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, and a Trustee of Rockefeller Foundation, the best-selling author of two books is also the founder of the Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship (GAME), a coalition that aims to create 10 million entrepreneurs in India by 2030.

Looking back, the 57-year-old says that developing a personal board of directors was one of the best things he had done.

The seed of the idea came about after he became the CEO of a company when he was in his early 30s. “I was quite inexperienced at the time and was reporting to a board of directors,” says Ravi, who has also been the board chairman of Bank of Baroda. “But I was fortunate that it was a good board with excellent individuals and a wise chairman. Their counsel and help at every step were hugely important in the success of the enterprise.”

Taking a lesson from this experience, Ravi decided to assemble “a good board with terrific individuals” to guide him in every company or venture that he led.

Realising that “it paid off every single time”, he wondered why he should not replicate this in his personal life as well; create a personal board – even if virtual – to help navigate his career and life.

“Unlike the board of a company, they never meet together but what they have in common is that they care about you,” he says. Ravi cannot underscore enough how invaluable his personal board has been to him.

From getting answers to questions relating to his professional life such as, “How do I deal with this sticky situation with company/person?” or “Should I join this board?” to personal ones such as “I’m ready for another adventure – do you have any ideas?” Ravi credits his personal board of directors for helping him “face every conundrum and every challenge during the last 20 years”. Little surprise that he sets aside an entire chapter on this topic in his bestselling book, What the heck do I do with my life: How to flourish in turbulent times.

He also offers plenty of tips on how we all can create our personal board of directors, but about that later.

I am keen to know what led him to write this book that has received praise from such leaders as Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw (“Ravi’s book is a must-read guide for… flourishing in our VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity] world”); Microsoft’s Satya Nadella (“the book offers practical perspectives on the mindset, skills and strategies that lead to impact and happiness”); and two-time Olympic medallist PV Sindhu (“the book delivers common sense advice on how to design a successful and satisfying life in a century of profound change and stunning possibilities”).

Ravi says that the book came “from a growing number of requests for career and life advice from people. It began with talks I used to give at employee gatherings at Microsoft India, around 2005.”

Ravi says the book came from a growing number of requests for career and life advice from people. “It began with talks I used to give at employee gatherings at Microsoft India, around 2005.”
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His homilies and commonsensical advice on career, success and happiness struck a chord in his listeners and the number of people who began approaching him for mentoring and advice quickly began to grow. “I enjoyed this part of my job a lot,” he admits, in the preface to the book.

After leaving Microsoft in 2011, Ravi, keen to explore new avenues, crafted a series of articles titled “Crossing the Mid-Career Chasm” that was published in a leading English daily in India. Soon he was awash with requests for more personalised advice.

“I sensed that a fundamental question for many of us is: ‘What should I do with my life? How can I be successful and happy in this turbulent world?’” he says.

And how would he define success?

“Our definition of success is an evolving one – a moving goalpost as we grow older,” explains the author who is also a venture capitalist. “In the beginning I defined success in terms of achievement, reward and recognition. Now I think of success as freedom. The freedom to be the person I am and not seek the approval of others. Freedom to spend my time as I wish and with whom I wish. Freedom from a lot of wants and anxieties.”

Another dimension of success, he says, is a life well lived. It’s about being able to not have any major regrets. “Finally, success is about leaving the world slightly more beautiful for having lived and consumed so much.”

Since not everyone can be successful in everything they do, is it okay to be average at most things in life? I ask.

“Yes,” says Ravi. “That’s a reality even for people who achieve extraordinary things.”

That said, the author makes it clear that you need to recognize the one or two things you are good at, and make the most of them. “I’m average at almost everything, but I am very good at connecting with people and inspiring many. I’m very good at seeing patterns and connecting the dots and connecting people. I make these really matter.”

How can one identify one’s strengths and work on them? I ask.

“By being aware,” says the man, named Microsoft’s Alumni Hero 2020. “Aware of things that we really seem to enjoy, things that seem to be relatively effortless.”

He illustrates this with an example from his life where, while in college, he found that he didn’t really enjoy engineering but loved engineering management. “So I followed that path, worked hard at it and became very good.

“The world doesn’t really need another average, frustrated engineer. It needs people who love what they do,” he says.

However, with enormous importance being laid on not just doing well but on performing spectacularly at the school level, are we setting up students to burn out early? I ask the Unicef’s Special Representative for Young People and Innovation.

He admits that the risk does exist. “It was tough in my time and it can be much more brutal now. Ultimately what matters isn’t the grades at school so much as character, curiosity, a growth mindset, and entrepreneurial and leadership skills. Unfortunately, most schools and colleges don’t put any weight on these things. So parents and individuals need to think about how to compensate for what isn’t being taught or learned.”

Ravi makes it clear that today there are a lot more options, ways and possibilities to create value and redefine success. “The key to success and satisfaction is to do the best you can with what you are best at, and find a way to get paid for it. The Japanese have a term for it – Ikigai. It means doing something that you love, that you are good at and which the world values.

“Someone may decide that making people laugh is what they are really good at; what they enjoy. So, being an excellent comedian might be the way forward rather than becoming a mediocre software engineer.”

So, what are the factors of success?

Sadly, most of us define success based on what other people – parents, spouse, manager – or society considers important, says Ravi, named one of India’s best management thinkers. “So it ends up being money, title, fame, power, social media followers…. What matters most is having the courage to figure out what success really means to you, and being able to walk that path regardless of what others say.”

I’m keen to know more about how to create a personal board of directors and ask Ravi, whose personal board has about 25 people, for tips.

“The people in my board range from young to quite old,” he says. “They live in four continents. Some of them are my closest friends. A few are my mentors.”

Among Ravi’s mentors are co-founders of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani and Narayana Murthy, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. “Others are people whose perspectives I respect and value. Yet others have valuable networks.”

Ravi underscores the fact that all the members on his personal board have widely different professions, views and interests. “That is the point – it is a very diverse group. I consult different people based on the issue. I listen to and consider their views but often decide to do something quite contrary after some reasoning.”

He suggests building a personal board by starting small – with just a couple of friends, a mentor or a wise relative. The important thing is to ensure that the people you choose care about you and will tell you the brutal truth whether you want to hear it or not.

The list should be dynamic and grow gradually over the years. “Don’t worry about how to give back and make it valuable to the other person. If there is energy in the relationship when you connect, it will probably work. Try to sustain each relationship through genuine engagement and sharing. Connect with many of them even when you don’t need anything. Share amazing articles that you think will interest them. Surprise them with a book or something they may like.”

Ravi admits that “there is no way I can repay some of the people on my board. All I can do is try to be worthy of their time and then pay forward – make myself available and helpful to the next generation.”

Life lessons learnt over the years

• Who you are matters more than what you have achieved.  This is what you will be remembered for

• In a world where you can be anything, be kind

• Build on your strengths but manage your weaknesses

• Walk lightly on the planet…it’s the only home we have

• Be the change you wish to see in the world

5 best pieces of advice my mentors gave me

• Take on big challenges and see them through

• A great team

• Keep good company- you are the sum of about five people that you spend the most time with

• Stay intensely curious

• Have the courage to follow your own path

Ravi’s books are available on amazon.com.

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