Sep 12, 2015
Theme: Leadership Lessons from Specially-Abled Children
Guest: V. R. Ferose
Host: Bela Shah
Moderator: Birju Pandya
Bela: Today our special guest speaker is none other than V. R. Ferose, someone who really embodies today's theme of "Leadership Lessons from Specially-Abled Children." Looking back at periods of hardship in your life, have those pivotal moments enabled you to find your purpose in life, or allowed your purpose to find you? How have moments of hardship become positive differentiators that have unearthed the best in you? What are the attributes that you value most in leaders? And what kinds of experiences led to cultivation of those attributes? Since we have the pleasure of a remarkable moderator today, Birju Pandya, I thought we could start by asking Birju to kick off our circle. Birju has been with ServiceSpace since almost the beginning. He was guest on these Awakin Calls when we first started back in 2011, and he shared beautiful stories of starting with kindness in the mailroom, simply mailing Smile Cards out to all the people out there in the world who were requesting them. Any thoughts today about today's theme?
Birju: Thank you so much for your kind words, Bela. Good morning, and it's a pleasure for you to be the host for today as well. I'm really moved by this question, particularly at this time. As I was reflecting on this, I'm not sure that I've been through real hardship in my life. In some ways I think about the day-to-day experience of life being the two-foot waves upon which I'm practicing for when the 20-foot waves come. I have seen examples of how others have been in relationship with that process, including right now, some dear friends who many know in the ecosystem whose children are, or whose son is, going through a very difficult hospitalization process right now. What I see is the approach to service at every step of the way. While their son is in the hospital, they are hosting meditation circles, and they are spending dozen-plus hours preparing and cooking. When I see that, the insight is that through hardship, one has the opportunity to go in or to go out. In going out, and in maintaining the service oriented mindset, one can actually change their whole relationship with the whole process. Of course, this is the lesson of our speaker today as well, so I'm so excited to be able to guide people to him as well.
Bela: I have a similar response to yours, in the sense that I'm not sure if I have experienced a real hardship, relatively speaking. When I think about times in my life when I've experienced intense suffering, for short amounts of time, what really moved me is the kindness around me that inspired me to go outward and not go inward, like you were describing. The example you shared of the family and the parents who are going outward and serving while their son is in the hospital... it's people like that who also inspire me, whenever I feel that I'm suffering in life, or experiencing a hardship, to really connect with others, because everyone has suffering in their lives, and to connect with others through kindness. I'm really looking forward to hearing V. R. Ferose's own life story and the lessons he's learned from raising his son and connecting with others.
Birju: I'm feeling honored and grateful that today's guest has come to join us. He's walked a pretty transformative journey, whose fruits have been shared quite broadly as well. V. R. Ferose is the managing director at SAP Labs, which is the research and development arm of the large global technology firm. He also has a journey of compassion that's been driven by the inspiration of his own son. That's been the inspiration to many in the ServiceSpace ecosystem who have come across his path in the last several months. We are so happy to have him here today with us. Thank you so much for joining us, Ferose.
Ferose: Thank you so much, Birju, and thank you, Bela, as well, for your very kind introduction. And, more importantly, giving me an opportunity to speak to all the listeners and all of you on the call. I'm absolutely honored. Maybe a small correction on the introduction. I WAS the managing director when I was in India, as you know, Birju, I just moved to the US. So I now am working as a senior vice president for a different role. Now I'm based out of Palo Alto in the US, though currently I'm taking the call from Germany.
Birju: That would be a nice place to get started. Considering the time zone that you're in, how are you feeling today?
Ferose: Fantastic. You know, it's so funny, people always ask me this question, "What keeps you awake at night?" and I say "Jet lag." This is probably the most challenging task of living in a global world where you are expected to be awake at all times and unfortunately not being paid for eight hours but working 24 hours a day. That's part of the job, to travel across the world. Your body is still not used to different time zones. But you get used to it after a certain point in time. Some amount of discipline helps you to overcome some of these various....
Birju: I'm curious to dive into that professional context as we get started. You worked against some pretty stacked odds to be in the position you're in. You were the youngest person to be in the positions you are in, the first non-German person at a company that is German-run. I'd love to hear a bit of the background of this. How did it happen? Was it just a bunch of hard work?
Ferose: I think hard work is probably a given, and I was obviously extremely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. If I had looked back and thought I would be where I was, I wouldn't have given myself any chance. I think life is nothing but a series of what I call "defining moments." It happens in life. You get an opportunity, you pick it up, do well, and the next door opens up. So I think I was extremely fortunate to have a dream run at SAP. I was one of the 30 managing directors at an incredible time as managing director at SAP Labs in India. Then I got a global role. I think I was just fortunate. I was surrounded by some incredible people, and I had got the right opportunities and kind of made the best of it. I think in some senses I was fortunate.
Birju: I'd love to understand a bit of the background as it relates to compassion. You talk about this idea of a flash moment in one's life, but I would imagine that prior to any flash moment, so much soil has to be cultivated, so many seeds need to be planted. I'm curious how the seed of compassion was grown in you even prior to this flash point.
Ferose: When I look back, if you do a very deep analysis, and I think many of us don't take the time to do that, but what I realized is if you very carefully analyze who you are, you are actually pretty much a combination of things that are given to you by your parents, and by your grandparents. In fact, we may even sometimes reflect on who we are with our parents, but we don't take too much time to reflect on what our grandparents gave us. And in fact there's a simple exercise. If you try to spend some times understanding the route, I think I was extremely fortunate that both set of parents and both set of grandparents had an incredible ability to give back to the society. My grandfather from my mother's side started one of the first schools in Kerala where women were sent to school. I'm a Muslim, and Muslim girls were not sent to school. So I'm talking about 60, 70 years back. He had the foresight to send girls to school. It's now one of the biggest schools for girls in Kerala. That's something I realized came from my grandparents' side. ...
My father... came from a very middle-class family, a very simple upbringing, but I've always seen that the whole idea of giving was very deeply-rooted. Very early on I realized that giving was not about how much absolute wealth you have. I think everybody can be a giver. Somewhere deep inside I was very fortunate to be part of that kind of upbringing. Somewhere I had a generosity gene. I can only be very thankful to my upbringing, to my parents, to my grandparents. I've seen that as a pattern in many people. If you just look at two generations, you'll probably find out a lot of answers.
Birju: I'm hearing your words and reflecting on myself and two generations up, and it certainly resonates. Taking that theme and then applying it to what seems to have been a primary thrust in your life, your work --- my understanding, from my context here in the States, in the world of management, is that you hear more and more about this concept of flat organizations and the difficulties of hierarchy. People in leadership roles can't see, can't hear what's going on at the bottom and so you have communication breakdowns everywhere. And as I've learned more about your work and how you're seen, not only in SAP specifically but in India, here you are stewarding, until at least recently, thousands of people with record low attrition rates and employee satisfaction scores that are not just tops in the company but near the tops of all companies in India. How does that happen? How does the compassion seed get applied there?
Ferose: One of the most important things I've realized --- when you are in an organization today --- is that for you to be successful you have to be extremely attentive. Today's the time when everybody knows everything about you. Everything. It doesn't matter where you are. Attentiveness is the number one criterion. I was being myself when I was leading my people... I always made it very open that I didn't have all the answers. But I was always inclusive in my approach. If you want to run a large organization, there are two ways to do it. One is to really do it top-down and you kind of instruct and guide the vision and tell people how to do it. The other is a very bottom-up approach, which is to say, you empower the people at all levels and let the ideas come up, and more importantly, empower the people at all levels to contribute to the larger success.
I think it is not one or the other; it is a combination of both that really works in today's world. So for me, the bottom-up approach was actually as important as the top-down approach. So I kind of made sure that once you have a purpose, you tie that purpose to the entire organization so everybody feels connected. And not only that, you have to empower the people at the lowest level to be able to contribute to it, and give them the opportunity to contribute to the larger purpose. So I think it's a combination of both top-down and bottom-up.
Birju: I really appreciate the depth of the context there, and I'm wondering if we can dive in a bit more even on specifics. When you talk about empowerment, can you give an example of how you do that?
Ferose: When I had taken over as the head of SAP Labs, we had a lot of challenges. I was given a tough task to kind of turnaround from a very difficult situation. The first thing I did was, I said, "Let's understand what are the problems that you are trying to solve?" And narrowed it down to, say, the top five problems. These I collected from the employees. I did close to 200 different interviews and understood what the problem was, right from the lowest level, from the employee level. So I collected the problems and said, "Okay, let's look at five problems that you want to solve." And then I said, "I don't have the answer. If these are the five problems, tell me people who are interested to solve this. You figure out the solutions yourself." So I kind of created groups of people who were passionate to solve the problem, and I said "My job is just to make decisions. So you tell me. Come up with the solutions yourself." These were problems that were identified by people, and I said "You need to find the solution yourselves, and I will help you implement and find the budget, and find the resources, and move-maneuvers (you know, sometimes large, complex organizations) to solve the problem."
So the same people who were complaining were actually now solving the problem themselves, and I was helping them implement them. And that is one way to solve a problem. Sometimes we tend to believe that, as a leader, we have to have all the answers, we have to solve all the problems ourselves. Really, that's not the case. The people are extremely smart. More often than not, the ones who complain have most of the answers, so let them solve the problems. You just help them to maneuver complex systems and to help them implement the solutions themselves.
Birju: Just as you share an example of empowering of the team, can you share an example on how you skillfully invite your own vulnerability into the group?
Ferose: I can tell you of some interesting learnings that I had. One of them is that, if I went into a meeting, I started by telling what to do, how to do, inspiring the people. But after a point in time, I realized that my biggest strength was actually becoming my biggest weakness. I thought I had the ability to articulate a problem; I thought I had the ability to inspire people; but more often than not, when I went into a meeting with, say, 40 people, I realized that I spent 90 percent of the time talking myself. I felt very good about it, because I thought everybody had come to listen to me, right? Because I was the head, and I had to solve the problem, and I thought, "That's the perfect place to be." Very quickly I realized that the problem was, if I did all the speaking, the people never spoke up, and their ideas were not necessarily coming to the foreground.
I was very fortunate to have a coach at that time who helped me realize some of my very fundamental flaws and that was that sometimes our biggest strength can also become our biggest weakness. And he said, "Ferose, while you're a great speaker, you're a lousy listener. You don't listen at all. You speak too much." I think I very consciously started listening more than talking. Then I realized it was incredibly powerful that suddenly people started contributing more to discussions, and they felt they were heard, and more often than not they had much better ideas than I had. So that's something that was not easy, because people noticed over a period of time that I was speaking less, and sometimes people were a little surprised. But I think people understood that they got more out of the meetings when I got people engaged in a conversation, and some very interesting ideas came up during our conversations. I think there were many instances that I have seen that when your strengths are stretched to a certain extent, it can also become your weakness.
Birju: As I hear this, the phrase that comes into my mind is "servant leadership," this idea of practicing from that space of going deeper in one's own inner journey, so to speak. This is certainly something at ServiceSpace that we talk about with some frequency. One of the places where the rubber hits the road, where someone in your position, I would imagine, has some experience, is --- it's easier to do that when the pressure isn't high, but we all have these critical moments where, let's say in a business setting, there's poor financial performance, or a dysfunctional team. How does your revised perspective change your behavior in moments like that?
Ferose: If you're convinced of certain ideas, the first realization is, true success and true transformations take time. We live in a world where we kind of plant a small tree, we water it every day, and we end up looking at it and saying "Why is it not growing fast enough?" If you just keep watering more, if you keep putting (in) more stuff, it's not going to grow. It takes time. I think I was, I must admit, and extremely impatient person. I was extremely impatient. I wanted results very quickly. At some point I realized transformations take time. That's a very important lesson that I learned. If you truly want to transform an organization, yourself, internally, externally, it takes time.
True leadership is having the courage to go through a certain plan, to go do the right things, even at the most difficult moments. If you're able to cross that, more often than not the results will show up. But with all humility I can tell you that the corporate world can be pretty ruthless, and may not give you the time any moment. But that's life. I think you shouldn't expect the results, you shouldn't focus too much on the results, and you shouldn't get tied up too much with the results. You have to do the right things over and over and over again to get results.
There's a very beautiful quote from one of my favorite actors, Shah Rukh Khan, who says that he became an overnight star in 20 years (laughter). We tend to look at success in a very narrow time-frame. More often than not, success and learning and transformation take a Hell of a lot of time.
Birju: Thank you for sharing about this professional context. I think it gives this background of where you're coming from. I would actually like to switch gears a little bit and have you share in another vein. And I would love if you could tell us about "the day," the day when your son was diagnosed with autism, and what was that experience like?
Ferose: My son, whose name is Vivaan, is the only son that I have. He was a very healthy baby, his development cycles were absolutely perfect. He was extremely good looking... a nice, chubby kid. Almost everything looked as normal as it could until we realized that he was showing certain patterns which didn't look normal. Since he was our only child, we didn't have any benchmarks. So we thought probably that he was just like any other kid, and.... one of my very close friends said, "I think you should go and do some tests to check if there's a problem." And we really didn't think there was anything seriously wrong. But I was kind of a little concerned... started doing a little bit of the research myself, and then went to a doctor to check and test him out if he had symptoms of autism. He was a small baby, 18 months old, so obviously a lot of the tests were more of interactions with me and my wife. After a series of questionnaires and multiple visits to different centers, the doctor called both of us in our room, and said, "Your son is showing signs of autism. He's pretty young, so we can't tell on which end of the spectrum he is, but he is autistic."
It was a moment which, honestly, I can't describe, except that we went back to the car; we drove back to our home, and me and my wife couldn't see eye-to-eye, we were in complete silence. We went home. And we both were acting as if everything was normal. The fact was, this was a life-changing moment. But we didn't know, more than anything else, how to deal with each other. I wanted to be strong for her, and she wanted to be strong for me. I went to the bathroom, cried for, I don't know, 30 minutes straight, and then I said, "Okay, this is a new reality." When there's a problem in your mind, you want to find a solution. I was in my entire life a problem-solver. You give me a problem, I love to solve it. And here was a so-called problem and the doctor said "There is no cure. Of course there are therapies and things can improve. But don't expect now your child to become 'un-autistic.' He is autistic, he will remain like that, but of course therapies can improve things."
I think that was very difficult moment. But I think that was a period. I won't say it was one day or a few moments. We go through moments of acceptance. Actually, it starts with moments of denial. Then things happen, moments of acceptance. But I think the best part, in retrospect, is that we had crossed the denial stage and went to the acceptance stage pretty quickly, I would say in two to three weeks. We kind of said, "Okay, this is a new reality, and let's deal with it." I consider myself extremely fortunate that my wife and me, both, in some senses got to a point of acceptance very quickly.
Birju: Just as a listener to your reflections here, I find it very powerful that you allowed yourself to cry, and to, even more to the point, allowed yourself to feel, in a context and paradigm that doesn't seem to give space to men to do that. I'm intrigued as to how those conditions came about --- that you did feel that possibility in yourself to experience emotions in that way.
Ferose: I like to believe that I was, and still am, a very emotional person. I also believe in sharing. I can say that my wife and I of course had different ideas and thoughts about whom to share with, how to share. This is was not easy news. Of course we shared it with our family members. But I also shared it with a few of my colleagues. At my position, and my professional job, meant that I was known in SAP and in India. So she was on one side concerned that, what if people get to know? Our child will be branded a special child for life. Is that what we want? Should we not speak about it? Should we keep it under wraps? So we went through that dilemma but I think we both agreed that sharing was incredibly powerful, and what we realized was that the more we shared, the more people opened up their hearts to help and support. And that was incredibly moving.
So many doors opened up because I shared my story with people. That's the power that I saw, that the more you shared, the more people are willing to give back in their own small ways. It's amazing that while I was fortunate to have the financial means, the network, the connections to do everything I needed to do for my son, but everybody wanted to do their small part, from good friends to unrelated people who heard. They would connect me, send me emails and say "You know, I know somebody who's going through this; I know some doctor here." It was incredible; the amount of love that I received was overwhelming. I think that gave us the power to go through it. And that's what I realized. The more you share, the more people actually want to give back to you.
Birju: I'm hearing the same thread of servant-leadership that was practiced in the office being again practiced in a different context, and that vulnerability creating so many dividends. As you share those seeds of compassion that you were sharing in a professional context, what was the reaction to the new normal, the next step that you came out with? How did you think about practicing compassion in that new context?
Ferose: You know, one of the things I realized during the journey, and this was --- my son is now 6 1/2 years old, so I'm talking about a five-year journey. We started doing very simple things, like finding out what's best for him, what therapy we can give him, and I kind of became a more hands-on person at home. I was having a crazy schedule, but I still felt that I needed to do what I needed to do for my son as well. So, small things like taking him to therapy and doing the therapy myself whenever I was there. Again, very hands-on. What I realized was, just looking at the space of autism in India, there were incredible amounts of problems that people were facing. One was, therapy was extremely expensive, and that made me extremely guilty that I was very fortunate to have the financial means to support my son. But 99 percent of the people couldn't afford the therapy that was pretty expensive. And even if you had the financial means there were not enough therapists. So then I started looking at ways to solve the problem, not just for my son, but for the larger ecosystem. That kept me getting deeper and deeper into trying to understand how to solve, or if not solve the problem, really tackle the problem, of special children at a much larger, holistic scale.
I think that was the journey and this is a journey for life. There are an infinite amount of things that need to be done, not just in India but across the world, and that's something I've been passionately following. In some senses my son has given me the purpose that I was looking for. Instead of just focusing on what I can do for him, I was looking was looking at, what is it I can do to make a difference in a meaningful way to the larger community of children with disabilities.
Birju: So what did that lead to? When you hold that kind of an intention, how do you put that into action when you're already so hands-on involved. I would imagine that the time requirements of raising Vivaan would be pretty heavy.
Ferose: Oh, yes, here again my wife played a huge role. She did all the heavy lifting. I was very fortunate to have an incredible support system. I can tell you that without a support system I wouldn't be able to manage both the professional life as well as trying to do something beyond that. So I had my parents, I had my in-laws, who were around and hands-on with my son, because my son needed 24-by-7 attention. I think it was a whole team of people coming together to make things happen. In some senses I was very fortunate to have a great support system around me. That gave me the leverage to focus both on my work as well as to make a difference around the whole cause of people on the spectrum. Or people with disabilities in general.
The interesting thing is that every time I tried to see, and found, a problem, it led to a new idea, it led to a new beginning, it led to a new opportunity. Once you start getting deeper you realize how much needs to be done. So while I was trying to solve one problem, I realized, "Oh, there's a bigger problem that needs to be solved."
So when I look at it holistically, I think I was just trying to do two very fundamental things. The first was to create awareness. The second was to see if people who are disabled can be meaningfully employed. Those are the two fundamental concerns that people have. The problem with lack of awareness is that if you're not aware, you're not sensitive, and if you're not sensitive, there is no action. So awareness is really at the bottom of everything we need to do. In India, especially, a lot more needed to be done. The US, of course, is a lot more ahead of it. That was one problem that I was trying to solve.
The second was, is there a way to employ people with disabilities in a meaningful way, because at the end of the day every parent had one concern: who takes care of the children after they're gone? Hence, that's the problem we were trying to solve. If people are independent, it doesn't matter what kind of disability you have, in fact we're working where we say that people with extreme disabilities can also be employed. I remember looking at one particular person who was completely paralyzed, and the only thing that person could do was move his eyes. We said, "How do we employ a person who can only move his eyelashes.?" And we said, "There is a job for such a person, too." That's the extreme situations we were looking at. I was looking at the world around us and trying to see other opportunities for people with different disabilities. That's the mission I've taken up, and am trying to do my small bit.
Birju: The phrase that comes up as I hear this is the idea of creative constraints, where anybody who runs a business has creative constraints. For instance, you have to have profitability in order to run the business. But what I hear you articulating is creative constraints that were driven by compassion. We don't have to employ the person who can only move his eyelashes, but the compassionate response is to find out how. So we are going to operate under that constraint. As we dive into the ripple of what happened as a result of your wanting to make an action in the world, what specifically happened in the office? How did you find employment for people who are in such a position?
Ferose: I was of course at that time focusing on autism specifically. I kind of had a personal understanding of the situation. That led to a very interesting conversation with a very dear friend from Denmark, Thorkil Sonne, who also had a son with autism and who started a software company where all his employees were people on the spectrum. I met him, I tried to understand the model that he is working on, and as a small experiment, hired five people on the spectrum in SAP Labs in India. I'm using the word "experiment” only because I had no clue what this would lead to. Because the model in Denmark was extremely progressive. They had a system, they had government support, and we had neither. We didn't have people who were qualified, we didn't have any government funding, people were not even aware of what this was. But I said, "Let me try." He said, "Well, it worked in in Denmark, maybe it will work in India in a completely different setup."
So we hired five employees on the spectrum. Two of them actually left after a certain period of time. They didn't work out. But the people who stayed back did some incredible work. They were doing software testing, and we were focusing on only their strengths, not on their weaknesses. They were of course doing a great job because people on the spectrum have good memories and they have the ability to do the same things again and again without getting bored. A lot of software testing that we were doing in SAP required those two skills. What we did was, we gave a certain leverage for not having the ability to communicate or giving them space in isolation. We gave them special adjustments, so we gave them special areas where they could be themselves without too much of a noise around them, and we were absolutely making sure that they feel comfortable in a crowd, and so on. By focusing on their strengths and not on their weaknesses, we were able to derive incredible business value out of these employees.
I think that I've always believed that, more than the tangible benefits that we get, the intangibles are sometimes more powerful. We found that the team around them suddenly started having a larger purpose. The team started feeling good. The team started feeling a sense of pride working for a company like SAP, which was extremely compassionate. So these were intangibles that came out of hiring these employees. Then of course a series of events happened. But again, from hiring these people to really finding a certain business benefit took us two years. This was not a one-quarter activity. In one quarter, we would have failed. In one year, we would have failed. But over two years, we proved that the benefits both tangible and intangible, were worth the effort we put in. That's why I said, these things take time. But over a period of time, this became probably one of the most transformational projects that both SAP Labs and India has taken. In fact, then it was rolled out through SAP worldwide, and is now being practiced across the globe by many companies. But the fact is, it took us some time, and we had to proceed with it with the idea we believed this would work, even though two of the employees whom we hired didn't last the time because of various medical reasons. But I think this was a complete transformation.
Birju: Ferose, I'd like to jump in there. So that, to me, is really intriguing. Because you work at a corporation and as I understand it, intangible benefits have some value. But at the end of the day, there needs to be a business case. My understanding of your personal rationale is that you are driven by a heart of compassion. You were not originally hiring people because you knew that they would create financial value. You just had faith. You needed to speak a different language in order to convince people who may not be driven by compassion as deeply as you are. Almost at a specific level, how do you speak that language? How do you prove a business case when that is not your main driver?
Ferose: Absolutely right. There are two things here. One was, I was personally convinced that there is a business value. When I saw the model work in Denmark, it was pretty clear to me that there is a business rationale behind it. That was how it was based on. So this was not a social enterprise, this was a corporate that was making profits. I was convinced, I personally spent time to understand how it worked. But I was also aware that if you're looking at short-term objectives, this will not fly. Just to make people understand will take me six months. These employees will take at least six months to one year before we see some tangible benefit. I was fortunate that I was in a position of authority, but more than the authority, I think the people around me, and there were many leaders, who started believing in the idea. It was not about everybody believing it. But you need to have a few early believers.
Because you can't do it yourself. Sometimes it's just a handful. It's maybe three or four people who believe in it, who probably have a similar level of compassion as you do. These are not regular tasks. These are not regular activities. Many of them are a leap of faith. You have to take that leap of faith if you are clear about it yourself and then follow it through, because we had incredible challenges to take this through for the first one year, because people will say, "Why are we doing this? Does that make sense? Is there a business rationale?" But we were trying to see and measure the business outcome over a period of time. And like I said, good things take time. And at some point we found that some of these employees did much better than normal engineers.
But I think what is important is for people to talk about the intangibles also. When I left my role as a managing director, we had the highest employee engagement. These things played a huge amount of role. Pride for working for a company like SAP. We had the highest rating ever in our 12, 13-year history. That's the element where I think there is an element of storytelling. I think leadership is also an element of storytelling. And I think we focused as much on the intangibles as on the tangibles. Maybe I was fortunate that I didn't have a quarterly target to give every time. But also, if you look, when we started it, the scale was small. We were looking at three to five people in a 5,000-people organization. So this was not as severe as it seems from outside.
Birju: That's helpful. As you share that idea of starting with three to five people. I heard this quote from Mother Teresa. She says, "All we can do is small things with great love." You mentioned at the end of your share that this is now a major initiative across companies all over the world, hiring differently-abled people. On some level you could say the idea, the concept has scaled. And yet you started out hiring just three to five people. I would think you may not have started with a Power Point of how this was going to become a worldwide phenomenon. I'm curious how you reconcile this idea even in your position, a scaled position, focusing on doing small things with great love and having the faith that somehow the right things need to ripple out.
Ferose: When I look back, Birju --- just to maybe set the context, next month the whole initiative I started called Autism at Work at SAP, is going to become an official Harvard case study. If anybody had told me, when we started this, that in five years' time it would become a Harvard case study, I would have said "No chance." Because this was not planned. I go back to my whole surmise of leadership --- that leadership is nothing but decisions that you make at your defining moments. In a leadership journey there are multiple defining moments. And when I look back at my five-year journey, especially with this autism initiative, there have been various defining moments. One led to the other, led to the other, led to the other, and I think I'm just incredibly blessed that this has taken on such a huge international scale. This was discussed at the United Nations and SAP is considered as one of the front-runners in this initiative. So when I look back, it looks really like a dream that happened, and I'm really glad that it did.
Birju: I'm curious to hear what you'd say. There are so many people out there that I come across at least, in my limited experience, who have these hearts where they want to do good in the world, but the thinking mind comes in and really has this feeling that three to five people is not enough. Unless I impact the world, then I haven't done anything. I hear you almost coming from an opposite perspective. So I'm just curious, if somebody comes to you with that Power Point presentation of "Here is how hiring three to five differently-abled people will change the world," what would you say to help shift that perspective?
Ferose: I have this belief that if you have the right intentions, it has infinite organizing capacity. I think everything goes back to intentions. If your intentions are pure, things will happen. Again, I am not a great believer in putting a big goal and a big number. I didn't say that we would now hire 10,000 people on the spectrum. Some of these things evolve and you have to trust your instincts, you have to keep doing the right stuff, and things will happen. Again, I'm not taking the big, audacious goal away from the picture at all. I still in my mind want to create a big impact. But big impact will only happen by doing small things incredibly well. And that's what I've found --- that good leaders have a very quick realization that they can do a few things incredibly well, and they can't do infinite things incredibly well. If you have the ability to focus on a few things which have the right intentions, then things will happen. That's something that I've always said.... let things happen by themselves, but not lose sight of what the bigger picture is, and take it one step at a time. While we should have a plan, we shouldn't have a plan which is three years, five years, ten years from now, because things change.
Bela: This is an incredibly inspiring call, and I'm sure our callers also will have a lot of questions and will want to join the conversation.
Birju: I'm thinking about a conversation you and I had earlier this week as we were preparing a little bit for this conversation. One of the things you shared then that really struck me was how much emphasis you put on purpose. Finding one's purpose and going through the journey required in order to get there. I heard you say on this call that in some ways this was a blessing in disguise and that you were able to find your purpose. I'm curious how you invite the purpose-finding journey of those around you.
Ferose: Purpose is such a broad topic, and I won't claim to have found all the answers. I don't think anybody would. It's a journey. What I realized, Birju, is that, although the world is full of suffering, and I think we see suffering everywhere, if you see it the other way around, it is also full of the overcoming of it. I think that's the great power. While people suffer, people also find ways to overcome that. The reality is, there is no education like adversity. Adversity is the best teacher; it can teach you way more than anything else. While my son is now 6 1/2 years old, he hasn't spoken a single word yet, but he's taught me way more without uttering a single word than any education, any degrees, any experience can ever teach me. The question I am trying to understand is, "Is there a correlation between pain and purpose?" I don't know; I haven't found answers. But a lot of people whom I met, and through my experience of listening to stories from the students at Columbia, where I teach once in a while, is that the majority of the people who had their defining moments have had a very, very painful experience. Now while there is a correlation between pain and purpose, I'm not sure if everybody has to go through a painful experience to find their purpose. I would like to believe it is not necessarily the case. But I don't know. That's something that, if anybody on the call-in has answers, I would like to know it myself.
Birju: I would like to invite that as dialoguing for the callers themselves. One more question from me before we transition over. I would love to hear, given you've put in so much effort to clear the pathway at a macro-context for Vivaan, and it is my understanding that your family has been working to clear the way for him at a micro-level. What are your hopes for him? What would you love for him to engage with in his life?
Ferose: The first thing is that I'm not putting any limitations. I'm not thinking of "What is it that he will not be able to do?" But at the same time, I'm not thinking, like many parents would probably do, "Okay, I want him to become a doctor or to become an engineer or to go to a university." He's living by the day, by the week and he'll sign up for small pleasures in life. My wife keeps saying, "My happiest day would be when he says 'Mama.'' The funny thing is, the first word he said was "iPad." (Laughter). So that's the reality. So we've kind of signed up for small pleasures in life and we're not thinking too far. We'll take it one step at a time...Our only hope is that he starts to communicate. We understand what he wants a little bit. But if he is able to start speaking even a few words that would make life a lot easier for him and for us. So my immediate goal is that he gets to speak a few more words other than "iPad."
Wendy (Caller): This is Wendy at Half Moon Bay. This is such an inspiring call. Thank you so much. I am curious how you and your wife work as a team regarding working with your child. In so many cases, having a child with disabilities can put such a strain on marriage. We would like to know how you're able to keep your marriage strong, and that would be useful for so many people who may be listening or who are facing similar kinds of circumstances --- how you work together and how you maintain strength in the marriage regardless.
Ferose: A fantastic question, and I wouldn't claim that it's all perfect. I think we go through our daily challenges even now. What I realized is two things. Studies confirm it. When you have a child with special needs, the majority, I think it's 70 to 80 percent of the time, the relationships don't go well. Many of them end in divorces. But 20 percent of the time, actually, the relationships become very strong. I think there is an incredible power in having a special child. I'll share my own (case of) how it helped me and my wife to come closer even though we still have a lot of challenges every day. There was a point in our life where I was just focusing on my career; she was focusing on her career. And we were kind of going in two parallel ways. Until my son was diagnosed. She was focusing on the kid, I was focusing on the career. So there was no point of intersection. But at some point when I realized that I need to focus on my son as well, we suddenly realized that we became closer together, because we had a common purpose. And that was our son. In many cases, when both parents are focusing on careers, or one of them on the child and the other on the career, there is no point of intersection. And without realizing it, you go far, far away.
So I made a conscious effort to actually slow down. I made a conscious effort to spend as much time as I can with my family. We said we will take roles, even though I travel extensively. But when I'm in town I make sure that the priority is that we go to the doctors together, we do the therapies together, she gets a break, I get a break, and very often we try to at least spend a couple of days in a month together, away from the kid, whenever it is possible. At least as long as my parents or in-laws are there. We need to have our own time for at least a day in a month. These are small things we have done, but I think it's also in some senses made our marriage stronger, even though we struggle to keep it that way on a daily basis.
Wendy: Do you and your wife ever talk to other couples who are facing similar circumstances.
Ferose: Oh, yes. I think what we should try to avoid is --- what I've also seen is that once you have a child with special needs, you tend to only interact with families of children with special needs. I think we have to try to keep our life as normal as possible. While we do meet, because my son goes to a special school, so we meet the parents there, but we still try to hang out with our friends from the past. We still try to do normal things like going to a movie. That's why I say a support system helps. I think sometimes we can get caught up by having our own.... surrounding ourselves with only people who have children with special needs. I think you have to strike the right balance. If you can try to keep your lives as normal as possible, treat your child as normally as possible, I think things become a lot easier.
Mish (Caller): This is Mish in New York City. I wondered if you had any experience working with autistic children using horses. My friend's daughter does this, and she has found that introducing autistic children and other special needs children to horses has made great advances with them. I wonder if you've had any experiences with that.
Ferose: He used to go for horse-riding every Sunday when we were in Bangalore, and since we've moved to Palo Alto we've tried to take him horse-riding on the weekends, once a week. Here's what we've observed. He loves horse-riding. He got onto a horse immediately. He looks forward to the weekends. But if you ask me, "Have you seen any specific improvement in him?" my answer would be, "I don't know." We're doing so many therapies for him that I don't know what's really working on him. The fact is, he likes horse-riding, so we do it. That's it. It's as simple as that.
Mish: It brings him pleasure, so that's a wonderful thing, right?
Ferose: Yes. If he's liking it, we do it. There are so many therapies, and I think that's what I'm sure many of you who have children on the spectrum struggle with, is you don't know what would work, and it takes an incredibly long amount of time to show results. And more often than not you don't know what's working. This is a struggle we go through every day.
Mish: Thank you for sharing your story with us today.
Ferose: Thank you. Thank you for listening.
Bela: I was really struck earlier when you said that your son is six years old now, I believe. And up to this point, he hasn't said a single word to you, yet you've learned so much from him and from observing him. I was hoping you could share a little bit about what you've learned in this journey with your son, and how that's changed your life.
Ferose: There are two or three great learnings that I had. The first was, at some point I realized that you're never in control of things. I think that's a huge learning for me. I can tell you that when you work, when I was the head of SAP in India, you're running a large organization, you can start thinking that you're always in control. I think this is what CEOs and CFOs start feeling at some point in time --- that when you're responsible for so many people and so much revenues, and blah-blah-blah, and people around you are all listening to you, you start to get a feeling that you're in control. Then this happened, my son's condition and so on, and very quickly you realize that the fact is you're never in control. It's actually an illusion that you have that you're in control, but you're not.
And then, while I was studying on the topic of leadership, I met some incredible people. I was very fortunate to meet and be very close to a former President, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, whom I found to be one of the most amazing leaders, and he was extremely humble. So in my journey in the last five or six years, I've looked at people who are incredibly smart but sometimes very arrogant, and then I've found people who are incredibly smart and extremely humble. I was trying to see, "What is the reason that some people are humble and some are not?" My realization was that humility comes from a very core understanding that you are never in control. That's the huge learning that I had. I can confess that there were moments where I was arrogant. There were moments when I thought I was in control. I think my son gave me that realization that you're never in control, right? As they say, "We all have a plan until we get a nice punch in the face." So that was, I think, a huge realization --- that in life you're never in control.
Sachin Chaudhry (Caller): Ferose, this is Sachin Chaudhry, I'm the founder/CEO of trustcircle, a San Francisco/Bay Area startup. I am actually calling today from Bangalore. I was hoping we could meet tomorrow, only to realize that you've moved to the Bay Area.
Ferose: I'm sure we can meet. Send me your email and when I am in Bangalore I would love to meet you.
Chaudhry: I will be back in the Bay Area on Oct. 4. I have two things. A comment about the discussion of the connection between pain and purpose… I can share my experience on that, and then I will follow that with a question. I started trustcircle because my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1994 when he was just 12 years old. And I had to struggle all these 20 years --- it has been 20 years now --- just to find "Why him?" But a Yogi once told me that "If you really want to find purpose in life, go back to your wounds." So his statement actually made a big impact on me and helped make what's really clear. So trustcircle is on a mission to simplify lives of peers and caregivers who are impacted by mental health issues. And I really resonate with your thought-process of touching the lives of millions of differently-abled individuals. The comment here is that, yes, in my experience there is a deeper connection between pain and purpose. The question I have is, I would really like to touch base with you even though I am in Bangalore, and share and discuss with you, as our intentions resonate. So what is a good time to call you if you're available tomorrow? We obviously can meet so....
[Ferose, Chaudhry, Bela, and Birju then discuss how arrangements can be handled so that a connection can be made between the two parties]
Aryae (Caller): Ferose, I'm really fascinated with the whole issue of how much compassion can be seeded into the workplace. Having worked in the leadership consulting area in Silicon Valley for a number of years, I came upon, personally, limits as to how much transformation really could happen in a corporate setting. I'm curious from your perspective and what you have seen unfold, are there limits about how much compassion can be brought into the workplace, and if so, what are those limits?
Ferose: It's a fantastic question, and I'm also trying to figure that answer out through my own journey within SAP. I think a few realizations are the following:
The first is that if you are a giver, it will pay off in the long run. But it's important that, and I will underline the words "long run," and you should be okay to go through moments where things don't work for you. So compassion may not always work. We live in a very clinical world where you're measured on a daily basis, but in the long run compassion does work. That's what I said in the beginning. If you look, and I think Birju will probably share this later, if you read Adam Grant's book, "Give and Take," it clearly says that statistical data shows that givers in the long-run are successful even in the corporate setting. When I say givers, I mean people who do more for others, keeping in mind they are sharing knowledge and keeping the larger picture in mind. So it does work.
But it also has the other side of it. Adam Grant said the top 25 in any organization are givers, but the bottom 25 percent are also givers. So I think that's the realization --- that it has both sides to it. You may have a few compassionate people, incredible givers, having the right intentions, also failing often in the corporate setting. But it's also true that an equal number of people succeed as well. So I think there are two sides to the coin. Compassion works, but not necessarily all the time.
Aryae: Very interesting. A complex story. Thank you.
Palavi (Caller): Good morning, my name is Palavi, and I'm calling from Berkeley. I'd like to apologize; I tuned in really late today, so I missed, I'm sure, a lot of the gems you've shared. I just caught the last bit of you connecting pain and purpose. And I wanted to share what I've learned in my life. Even right now as I speak, there is a shooting needle of pain in my body. It's excruciating, and that needle comes from walking the paradox of not having an opinion, or not sitting on the side of good versus bad, but staying on the edge. That's been a question I've been asking, too, for a long time... it seems that to touch that purpose, which is really our higher human right, probably, what I'm discovering is, we have to shed the pain. Whether it is karma, it's coming from how we construct our realities, it's coming from not being One... Wherever it is coming from, it's there, and what I'm learning is, we have to shed it in this lifetime. And all of these circumstances that come into our life are more opportunities for us to shed that pain. So that's what I'm learning. And then I look at people like the Dalai Lama, or you see people who have had instant awakenings, and I wonder whether, are they special or are we.... what's the difference? And somehow, what's coming up for me is that this is actually the path of evolution of a human being. I just wanted to share that thought.
Ferose: My only simple take is what you beautifully said --- the question is how do you shut down the pain? My thinking is, the only way to shut down the pain is to create a bias for action. The only way that I have moved on is by doing something about it, and making a bigger change. That's the only way I can forget my pain. So I've always said that "Hope is not a course of action." Let's not sit and hope that things will change and things will happen and things will improve and the pain will disappear. That is not going to happen. You have to change things. The only way to remove pain is to create a bias for action.
Bela: There's so much wisdom on this call and so much gratitude for your time. Birju, I think you also had another question.
Birju: I'd love to hear a bit more about your context of this new direction and purpose in your life in the last several years, outside of the SAP world. My understanding is that you've even written a book on the topic of differently-abled heroes and leaders. I was wondering if there was a story from there that you found particularly inspiring, that you wouldn't mind sharing with us.
Ferose: I wrote this book, which was titled "Gifted: Inspiring Stories of People with Disabilities," and the reason I wrote the book was, again, in some senses, to learn leadership lessons from these people. Because I found that the people who had the ability to overcome all kinds of challenges in their lives were actually true leaders, and unfortunately they were not celebrated enough. Before I get into the story, Birju, there's one thing I'd like to share. It's that there is so much incredible leadership around us but we tend to only celebrate leaders who are CEOs and presidents and award-winners and so on. If I visit a bookstore, and go to the section on leadership, it's always the same kind of people that we tend to celebrate. My idea was to write stories of unsung heroes, of everyday people who demonstrated incredible courage and incredible leadership. That's how I wrote the book, and this book has 15 stories of people who have overcome their own disabilities both physical and intellectual, to achieve a meaningful life. While there are a few very famous people, most of them are "average" people, or what people think of as average, but in my eyes demonstrated incredible leadership.
One of the stories which is by far one of the most powerful ones is a story of friendship between two people, Ashwin, who was born quadriplegic, and his friend, Bharat, and I think this is probably one of the most powerful stories of friendship I have ever read. I would love to share that at some point in time with the group as well. This is a story of an incredible ability to do things for your best friend. When Ashwin went to college..... He's a quadriplegic; when he was born the doctor told his mother, "Don't expect. anything from your son, he'll be like a vegetable, he can't do anything else. All you need to do is take care of him." But he went on to become the first engineering student from India. He got into engineering, but the difficulty was that he wouldn't be able to write his exams because there was no scribe in the engineering college. Everybody who came to engineering college had to write their own exams. His classmate actually dropped his own engineering for four years, became his scribe. He gave up his four years of degree to become his scribe, make sure he (Ashwin) passed as gold-medalist, and went on to get a software job. His friend actually went back and finished his engineering after four years.
I'm not sure if this kind of giving could ever happen, that people just give up their careers to become somebody else's scribe, to become your best friend's scribe. And I think that's one of the most moving stories I had heard. While doing them, it was such a moving story. It's very emotionally draining to hear such stories, but it's also an incredible amount of learning.
Birju: I am so moved by what you've just shared. I had to look it up while you were sharing it. There's a poem I just saw, by Ashwin… that I wanted to read. He said:
I walk with my head held high
Challenges don't make me shy
I have failed, I don't deny
From failure I learned to fly
Ferose: Ashwin, two years back, won the President's Gold Medal in India for being a role model. The story of being told by your doctor to his mother that you have a son who is going to be a vegetable, to winning the President's Medal, is an incredible story of many people coming together. He had a very supportive system. He had a very incredible friend. I think one of the most powerful things the mother told me (they're very good friends of mine) --- I said, "Aunty, how did you manage this 25-year journey of managing a person who is quadriplegic, who can't move his hands and legs, literally throughout his life?" And she said, "Ferose, what I did, every mother in the world will do for their children. But what Bharat, who was his friend, did for Ashwin, only one in a million can ever do such a thing." I think that was an incredible moment for me.
Bela: We have one more question, and that is the question of how we can serve your journey --- the larger ServiceSpace community. How can we support your work?
Ferose: I think there are various possibilities. Just the fact of including me as your friends and well-wishers itself is a huge journey. The fact that there are so many callers, that you've given me the opportunity to speak to so many of them and share my own journey, is a huge opportunity for myself. What I have done on a functioning basis is that I've created a platform called the India Inclusion Summit, which happens in November in Bangalore. My mission is to spread the awareness of people with disabilities. We tend to get speakers from around the world. A former president was there last year. This is a platform for unsung heroes. This is a platform where anybody and everybody can attend. Physically, typically, we have a capacity of around a thousand people. It's completely free of cost. It's run by corporates contributing significantly.
That's one of my missions, which is an ongoing mission, of creating a platform where we can touch as many people as possible. We want, of course, to have an online medium. Our mission is to maybe to spread awareness to at least 10 million people by 2020 through various mediums --- online mediums and so on. I believe that awareness is the key and any help to spread more awareness is welcome. I don't want to restrict it to India, because India has a very different problem, the US has a very different problem. I think there is a lot that we can do. Please feel free to write to me and I'll be happy to give more specifics and share more ideas. Any ideas that anyone has on the call, I would be extremely excited to listen and talk to you, and take this conversation forward.
Birju: I'm reflecting on 90 minutes of gem after gem. And what I'm most moved by is the full spectrum of your engagement with compassion, from the context of the professional and the context of the very personal. To me, the most amazing thing is the transcendence of the boundary, where the personal has now become the professional, and vice versa. Thank you so much for sharing those insights with us.
Ferose: I want to thank you, Birju, for being a wonderful host. Thank you as well, Bela, for the introduction. And thank you to everybody for listening in.