Prof. Vasanthi Srinivasan (HHL School of Management, Germany & Associate Professor IIM...

Prof. Vasanthi Srinivasan (HHL School of Management, Germany & Associate Professor IIM Bangalore) talks about how to make the most out of early learning years


When I was invited to write an article for ‘Aspirations’, I had a chance to look at the previous issues. There were several highly esteemed and accomplished professionals who had provided their insights on important aspects of organizational life. If you have read these articles, you shall find that there is very little, one can add further because most of it is already there. Therefore, I felt that sharing my own career journey may be a good way for you to reflect upon your own lives and learn from whatever you have experienced so far.

Thirty years ago, armed with a degree in commerce, I knew that I did not want to be an accountant; but what I did not know was what I wanted to be. I landed my first job with a not-for-profit organization. My job was to promote voluntary blood donation in colleges and corporate houses. As several of you can well imagine, everyone around me was shocked. They thought that I had no future and that I was doomed to be a failure because I threw away a good career as a Chartered Accountant. Even worse, was the popular perception that I can never return to a corporate career.  For those of you, who are at this stage in your career, i.e. not too sure of what you want to do, my first advice would be: Explore; if you are unclear, Experiment. Take up any job, don’t worry about salary and what others think of you because you are gaining life experience in an organization and all of it is learning. Knowing what you don’t like is as important as knowing what you like/want. Watch out for opportunities and make a commitment to stay for at least 2 years in the organization. Only then are you likely to have a good experience that you can draw upon. Anything less than two years of experience is just about passing time. It takes about 3-6 months to settle down in any organization, another 6 months to learn the ropes and become a contributor; another 6 months to know what you are good at and what you are not; what you like and what you dislike and then you can make a choice to stay or quit.

Let us continue with my experience at the Blood Bank. I worked with several people, both within the organization and outside. I had an opportunity to interact with the heads of HR departments who helped organize and allow access to employees, senior leaders who would champion blood donation with hospitals who conducted the camps,  and volunteers who supported the entire initiative within their organizations and helped  make the blood donation camps a success. During the two years of my stay, I gained confidence to interact with different groups of people. I learnt simple etiquettes like what all is to be kept as confidential, how not to gossip about others, how to make commitments and honour them, how to help colleagues and how to take negative feedback. Besides all of these, I got an opportunity to work with a wonderful boss and an equally wonderful senior management. All of this learning helped me effectively transition my professional journey in the later years of my career.

When you have worked with a good boss, you begin to appreciate the “not-so-good bosses”. I ended up working with several bosses and even as of today, my first boss is the guide to my own behavior as a boss. She allowed me to do what I wanted to and believed that I would come up with a better solution than others. She knew that in need, I would go to her for support. She was there to show me the right way to do things, whenever something went wrong. Several years later, when I now work with leadership teams and talk about how leaders ought to be, I have role models of competent bosses, whom I admire; altruistic bosses who put others’ growth ahead of  their own; charismatic bosses who could get others to do anything and finally bosses who never evoke respect or admiration. The way you continue to maintain your professional integrity as you work under different bosses is a key learning for life! And here goes my second advice: There is a lot to learn from others.

Since I spent several days in a week with doctors from government and private hospitals, I began to understand the hospitals – how they operated, problems they faced and most importantly, the commitment and diligence of the doctors who went beyond the call of duty in these hospitals. I  had also noticed that some of the volunteers from organizations came back to support the cause over and over again by providing me contacts from other colleges  & organizations and whenever there was an emergency call for blood, they would respond instantly. Today, I am in a business school and have very little to do with hospitals and blood banks except that I donate blood. You might wonder whether the experience, in any way, is relevant at all to my career. It is indeed interesting to note that after all these years, today, when I am guiding a doctoral student who is researching on HRM in Health care organizations, my understanding of the hospitals during those years is helping me to guide him. I am also involved as a research advisor on a project on Human Resources in healthcare organizations. Therefore, my third advice: You never know that what you’ve learnt once may come in handy at a later stage in your life.  Treat every experience as valuable and learn as much as you can.

Several of my peers and colleagues are now heading organizations and holding senior-level positions. As I grew and evolved over the course of my career, so did they! I had an unusual experience recently on a flight when a gentleman sitting next to me told me that he thought he knew me and I could not remember. I was deeply embarrassed by this and only after a few minutes of chatting, I figured out that he was a volunteer in one of the organizations where I had gone for blood donation. He was now the Chairman of a diversified conglomerate and offered me the access to his organization for research. My final advice: Networks get built wherever you are; and the stronger the networks, the more they would help you in the long run.

I feel that the four learnings that I have had out of this short stint of 2 years made me believe that learning is a life long journey; we can learn from anywhere, from any one and no learning goes waste.

Here are four questions that I leave for you to think about – In your professional or educational experience so far, what have you learnt beyond theory? Who were the teachers/bosses/colleagues/friends who inspired you? What did you learn from them? What are the areas that you didn’t like but have had an opportunity to experiment and explore? What are the areas that you somewhat like but haven’t had an opportunity to explore so far? How are you going to create an opportunity for yourself to explore those areas?

Finally, remember Socrates had once said – “Education is the kindling of a flame not the filling of a vessel”. Therefore, your degree is only a passport; you need a visa of experience and the ticket of passion to pursue a life-long career.