When The CEO’s Personal Philosophy Defines HR Policies

When The CEO’s Personal Philosophy Defines HR Policies

I met Mr Govind Dholakia [‘Govindkaka’ to everybody] in Surat. My friends in Surat had told me that he is an extra-ordinary person. I was eager to meet him.

He came to Surat at the age of 13 and joined the industry as a diamond cutter. A few years later he started his own unit. Today he leads a billion dollar company! How does a 7th standard pass man can transform a cottage industry to an industry which is recognised by big names such as De Beers? Why does the ‘inscription’ ‘I am nothing but I can do anything’ is found on every Manager’s table and also boldly displayed in the reception lounge? What made Govindkaka run a relief centre for people of modest means who have problems on hand? What made him establish a diagnostic centre which provides service at a throw-away price to people?

I met him with these questions on my mind. Dr Nirav, the HR Head, had informed Govindkaka that I wanted to interview him and that it would also be recorded. Dr Nirav said that I could go anywhere in the factory and also speak to anybody. He also told me that I could photograph anything, anywhere. We don’t see this level of openness in the industry, certainly not in the diamond cutting or jewellery industry. I had met Govindkaka in the morning at the Relief Centre, but it was a very short meeting. I saw him at work in the Relief Centre meeting the needy people and sanctioning payment to help them meet mainly the urgent medical expenses. After the brief meeting, he invited me to his office.

After visiting factory, I met Govindkaka in his office again. Govindkaka’s office is very spacious and modern. But the layout of this Chairman’s office is peculiar to say the least. Two walls of his office are all glass, one overlooks the Surat City and the other overlooks the atrium of his office building. Sitting on the other side of the atrium, about ninety feet away, and facing the Chairman’s office are four telephone operators. [They get so many international calls that they require four telephone operators.] Govindkaka was not concerned about being visible to employees while at work. His huge office which should be about 40 ft. x 30ft in dimension, had another identical table facing the Chairman’s table. So Govindkaka shares his office with another Director! I was reminded of Mr CH Choksey’s [the then Chairman of Asian Paints] office in 1970s. He used to share it with two other Directors. Sharing offices in spite of leading big companies must have something to do with the Gujarati culture I thought.

We were ready to do interview. But the rush of visitors continued. The visitors were high profile Surat men. Govindkaka apologised to us for the delay. Once he was done with the visitors, he asked, “You are going to video-graph this interview, is my dress okay or do you want me to wear a jacket?” “Please wear a jacket, it would look nice” the cameraman said without hesitation. He quickly put on his jacket. He was ready. We moved to his ante-chamber on his suggestion to avoid interruptions.

Govindkaka is a tall man, he speaks politely, confidently and straight from heart. You notice that he is an exceptionally good listener, listens to you attentively. I had a feeling that he understands English but he speaks Hindi with spattering of Gujarati, he is comfortable communicating that way. He had addressed IIM-A students in Hindi. Govindkaka smiles as he speaks, looking directly in your eyes. He speaks in somewhat loud tone but very persuasively. That politeness and persuasion is natural and there is no hint of ‘sophistication’. Dark complexioned with inquisitive eyes, neatly cut lines on forehead, he looks like a typical middle class man – neighbour next door. There were no tell-tale signs of wealth, and a surprising level of humility for a man of his stature and accomplishment.

In my brief meeting with him at the Relief Centre he told me that he was a follower of Dongre ji Maharaj. I had seen Maharaj’s photograph at the Relief Centre. Dongre ji Maharaj [though a Maharashtrian] had a wide following in Gujarat. He used to deliver discourses Ramayan and Bhagwat Katha.

‘I am nothing, but I can do anything’

“Han bhai, bolo” Govindbhai said. Our interview began. I had prepared some questions for him on my way to Surat, those focused on his life and journey to his current position, but I suddenly decided to play it by my intuition. I had made that decision when I entered the reception lounge of the building. My attention was held by a plaque there which had ubiquitous presence in his office. It was on people’s table, it was in the Relief Centre, it was everywhere!

“I see this plaque everywhere ‘I am nothing, but I can do anything’. What’s that?”

“Yes – ‘I am nothing, but I can do anything’. It has come straight from heart. I was addressing our key managers in a conference, it was almost 25 or thirty years ago. I told them ‘you have become key persons in this Company but please don’t think that you are ‘somebody.’ That you have become a leader, a key person is a matter of coincidence. It is providence. HE has plans on you. You were appointed here because you came from our village or because you were related to us or known to us…… it is a matter of coincidence….. Remember 50% of the people who work under your supervision are more intelligent than you…. You report to me although 50% of you are more knowledgeable and intelligent than me, but you are not occupying my chair, so you listen to me. Please remember: exactly this is your situation too. Please accept it. Let us not be ‘Somebody.’

Please think… Can you make the chair you are sitting on? Or the table in front of you? Can you make the shirt you are wearing or the shoes you have put on? NO! None of us can do it. So be humble. But don’t lose heart. If you decide to make any of these things, or anything for that matter, you can do it – all that it will take is a thousand days of training.

So we can make whatever we wish…. But have no ego, have confidence instead.

People liked this talk. Next day some people put a small board on their table [which in Gujarati meant] ‘I am nothing, but I can do anything.’ I allowed this to sink in the minds for a year, and then I put it up prominently. We believe in that.”

ME: “This is interesting. It is the way you manage employees. It is also your life’s philosophy… tell me more about it” I said.

“I worked and did exactly the same work which employees are doing today. I started my career as a worker cutting diamonds ….I understand them, our employees… I understand their difficulties, their life, their problems [including] how to make two ends meet at the end of the month. I have experienced it.

In 1968 I worked 14 hours a day. I attended and listened to the ‘satsang’ of Dongre ji Maharaj. I had an unforgettable experience listening to him. I felt weightless, I shivered… it is difficult to describe it. I decided that I must listen to him, attend satsang. It was organised in Surat at Indravadan’s home where only 30 or 40 persons would be present. Maharaj said, “if you want respect you must give respect.” He said there is a simple law of nature: Whatever you give, you will get it in return. Think as if you are standing before a range of hills, you say ‘God will help you.’ What will you hear? You will get ten voices [as echoes]… ‘God will help you.’ If you shout ‘You will be destroyed, you will be finished’….what will you get? Ten voices will say to you “You will be destroyed, you will be finished.”

He said that if you want respect you must give respect. I wanted respect, so I decided to give respect. I made a personal decision. From the next day I addressed everybody respectfully. Friends were addressed with the suffix ‘Bhai.’ I stopped using ‘Tu’ in my conversation – I always used ‘Aap.’ It did not matter who I was addressing. I address young and old, relatives or friends alike with respect. People made fun of me initially, but I continued and soon I begot respect. I became ‘Govindbhai.’ I said to my partners, “people come to us because of our attitude towards them. I speak to managers with respect, so they too in turn respect me as well as employees. I speak to my relatives with respect, so they too in turn respect me and everybody in the company. People do not come to you for pay alone, they also want respect. Only money for work is not okay.

I told them that all that you see here…. this excellent office, good pay… facilities all that is just a ‘price.’ It is not value. The value is several times more than the ‘price.’ It is in the in the culture, in the minds of people and relationships. That is the wealth.

We get the wealth, it is determined by destiny…..We have to make efforts to get it, but we must not commit blunders of sin.  I have applied this in all my dealings….I have often told people in this diamond world that if you say that I have said a lie even once then I will quit this business. The biggest lie is that you have to tell lies to make money. Sachchai ko paisa milta hai. [Honesty pays].

In 2008 we were hit by recession. Very bad it was. The prices fell almost by 30%. What was 100 became 70, and it was sudden. But we did not retrench employees. We were one of the two or three companies which did not retrench employees. We employed about 6000 persons. Our senior team including some of my family members told me that we must retrench 3000 employees.

I had never done that…. I told them don’t worry, Diwali vacation is approaching, why spoil their Diwali? Please wait till the festivities are over….After that I will do whatever you say…. I always agree 100% first with people and then I influence them to look my way…..After Diwali the situation slightly improved, and they said we must reduce 1500 employees….I said okay but please make a list of people whose services are to be terminated…..They made a list and then said this man is a good worker, that man has family difficulty, this worker is a relative and so on… and the list got cut down to 500. I told them that this is less than 10% of our employees so retrenchment is no issue any longer!

We get things wrong when we think that the balance sheet represents the wealth of the organisation. It does not. The real wealth is in relationship. It is in the culture.

More than a hundred workers wrote to me saying they appreciated the situation in which the organisation was. Several of them offered to work at reduced rate, several of them offered to do extra work. Here are the letters…..you can see for yourself.

ME: “Govindkaka I wish to ask you a question…. Actually I think I know the answer yet I would like to ask you….. Because managers trained abroad will see this as unnecessary cost…what have you to say?”

“I agree with them completely. It is a huge cost. But they are ignoring the benefit… it far exceeds the cost!”

*       *       *

The official vision statement of the company reads very much like many other companies’ vision, yet he creates a company par excellence.

He did not retrench employees in recession, he treats his permanent employees and contract employees with same rules, giving them same salary and benefits. He is humble, insists on treating people with respect, and advises all employees that they must practise humility and confidence. Those are great values.

He draws his inspiration from the teachings of Dongre ji, he absorbs good values like a sponge and practises what he preaches. He values intangibles more than tangibles.

Here is a man who created a billion dollar company. Here is a man whose academic qualification is that he has passed 7th standard, he is not even a matriculate. And yet he created a billion dollar company which is recognised for its people philosophy!

One conclusion is inescapable – This CEO has translated his personal beliefs and values in the people philosophy of his company. Like Tatas. Like the partners of Polyhydron. Perhaps better than them! A 7th standard pass man, unlike Tatas or Polyhydron partners.

Where does all this come from? Inborn or acquired? Is it all to his credit or preordained? Some aspects remain a mystery – at least to me – so far.

Vivek S Patwardhan