I typically get up sometime after seven in the morning because I need my eight hours of sleep. But then, as soon as I get up, I am at work. The first thing I do is I turn on my phone, which I turn off at midnight incidentally. But all those people who need to reach me for any crisis have my landline number (available with my secretary), so I am always accessible 24x7.
After I get up, the first thing I do is look at overnight SMSes and voice mails. In fact, my shower gets delayed till I return those messages and calls.
In India in general and particularly in telecom, we tend to rely on SMS. E-mails are simply too slow, too long, and they lead to [communication] ping-ponging, so much of work gets done through SMSes and voice call. My office is my phone.
Thereafter, I flip through three to four newspapers — two business news and two in general news. They happen to be Business Standard, The Economic Times, Times of India and Hindustan Times. Then I get ready. I reach work at around 9:30 a.m., that’s when I am in town.
I find the image of old colonial India’s laidback life and time for golf is misleading. Modern-day India is very fast moving. The work style ought to reflect that. At Vodafone, we have a system where we gather information over the phone and SMSes. We make decisions over the phone. Then we just minimise the formal part of the work of documenting the decision. But we don’t use the documents as a means of moving the decision-making matrix ahead. The key process for running a business is quick face-to-face meetings, quick phone calls, quick SMSes. Here, A calls B, B conferences C, A conferences B, and in minutes we set up a conference call.
It sounds chaotic but there is a method and a culture that responds to this [style of functioning]. You need to have a culture of returning SMSes and voice messages. It requires a discipline that if you are in a meeting the phone gets answered nevertheless. It’s a very good habit. In India, senior executives still have secretaries to record messages. It works. It also means there is no private time. Work always takes precedence.
It is my team that allows me to work the way I do. I work very well with a second layer of staff who are hands-on. Therefore preparing for a meeting, I make sure I have the inputs of my key people and depending on the level of meeting I tend to be very specific on feedback. And for all other structured meetings like board meeting(s), my style is always collegial.
I come very much from the school that you don’t keep a dog and bark too. If you pay a person to do a job, you better depend on the person too. So effectively speaking, I rely very heavily on my team. But having said that, I have a very deep “need to know.”
I am quite happy with them running their respective areas of responsibility. But I get very upset if they take that latitude as a licence to run a personal fiefdom. At the end of the day, this is the work of a team. However, in areas where directing is not enough, then on a contingent basis, I am happy to step in and get directed.
With the schedule that I keep, I am sorry to say that family time has been hard to come by. It is a sacrifice that my family has made. My sons went to boarding school before I came back to India and took up this job (as Vodafone’s India head). I play the role of an absentee father.
My wife is the glue that held the boys together. She is the one who made the daily phone calls and made sure they had the sense of touching base at home even though they were not at home. My wife says that the only way she can get to me is to talk to me over the phone. It’s not funny. The fact that they are still there and supportive of me, I think says more of their fortitude than my charisma.
It is very important for you to understand that I am not a workaholic. I have my social life. I go to concerts. I go to dinner and lunch with my friends. I am a man of a lot of interests in which I don’t indulge too much now. Till about three years ago I used to play a game of golf on Saturday afternoons. I would, once a week or so, or may be twice a week, go early in the morning for an intense round of horse riding.
Now I work out in the gym under a trainer and (lift) reasonable weights, keeping in account my size and age. I have an early dinner and go for a long walk with my wife on Marine Drive. We can go easily for a nine-kilometre walk and at times it can be 13 kilometres but the minimum would be seven kilometres and that is really an important part of clearing my head.
In the past, there were many years when we were caught in various regulatory battles and even that time was spent on the phone and my wife would be with me and it got to be that if I was one of the top three or four regulatory experts in India in my field of work, my wife would have been probably the fifth or the sixth. She was there every step of the way, literally.(As Told to Shishir Prasad)Asim Ghosh is the former CEO of Vodafone Essar
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(This story appears in the 03 July, 2009 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)