Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

One of the greatest success factors at work is our ability to convert time and activity into experience (the algorithm).

To convert time into experience, you require a catalyst, and that catalyst is TMRR: Target, Measure, Review and Reflect. TMRR model—the most effective learning model at work.

An Example of TMRR: I recently interacted with a young manager who had just completed a project. I said, ‘Let me help you catalyse that time you spent on the project and convert it into experience. Let us start with the question “What could I have done better in that project?”’ The young manager gave me a set of answers, but I felt they lacked depth. So I worded my question differently. ‘If you started the project again, with all the learning you have now, having done it once, what would you do differently?’ A clearer list emerged of what could have been done better. And then I asked another question, ‘Why could you not anticipate these areas right up front and do the project even better the first time? Were they impossible to anticipate and could they be known only after the project’s completion? Or was it that you failed to anticipate what was possible to anticipate?’ You can imagine the quality of reflection that is required to answer that question, and how that would build experience out of the time spent on this project. The young manager spent three months doing the project, but did not spend the few hours required to convert these three months into experience. A series of reflection questions like ‘What could I have done better?’ is crucial for truly converting time spent into valuable experience. If that is not done, then it is not time spent, but alas, time wasted.

Time is the single greatest investment and resource you put into your career.

However, this time is not automatically converted into the experience and algorithm that will drive your real individual growth and career success.

You must build an anchored habit of reflection on the question ‘What could I have done better?’

One common aspect in their journeys is that they have all had the opportunity to be an integral, end-to-end part of a very important project or initiative or transformation.

A learning cycle is any project, initiative or transformation that happens routinely in companies. E.g. a new product launch. That learning cycle starts with the process of identifying the need for a new product, building a business proposal for it, going through the product development cycle, including prototyping, researching and testing as required, building the manufacturing or service capabilities required and then launching it into the market. The learning cycle ends after the launch, when the new product has stabilized in the market, and corrective action, if required, has been taken. This whole thing, end-to-end, is one learning cycle.

The learning cycle represents the stage—the more significant the learning cycle, the greater the opportunity to drive real individual growth and build up experience.

The TMRR is equivalent to the artist’s performance—how much experience you extract out of the learning cycle will be driven by how well you applied the TMRR process on the learning cycle.

Hence, if you want to drive real individual growth in the quest for success, then you have to maximize both the size and scale of the learning cycles you participate in and the extraction of experience through effective TMRR.

To quote a real situation, many years ago, I had a high-quality brand manager working in my team. That was the time I initiated a project on fundamental brand transformation, going to the very core of what the brand stands for, and worked with a brand consulting company. In the initial phase, the brand manager worked with me on that project, and then I happened to leave the company. Hence, he got the opportunity to lead the project, which he did with great success, completely reinventing the brand. It was a three-year learning cycle of brand transformation, with initial tutelage from me, and then independent charge. That person has gone on to become extraordinarily successful in his career, garnering much global acclaim, and I have no doubt that the brand transformation learning cycle in the formative stages of his career was pivotal in building the experience algorithm on which his subsequent success was built.

Learning cycles are important catalysts for real individual growth.

For you to deliver those results, there are a set of things which are within your sphere of influence, in your circle of influence. Equally, there are things that impact your ability to deliver results at work that are not in your influence, and those are in the outer circle, the circle of concern.

I realized, through TMRR reflection, that I was most productive with my time when I focused on aspects within my circle of influence.

To increase your productivity, focus relentlessly on whatever is in your circle of influence. Spend all your time on what you can make a difference to, even if in the beginning it looks small.

Avoid the circle of concern like the plague. It is not about how much time you waste there—maybe you can afford to waste that time—but the more harmful impact of it is the energy it destroys, the negativity it creates in you, which then has a cascading impact even on the time you spend in your circle of influence.

Having a disciplined ‘rocks first’ time-allocation system, where I ensure that I provide my time/energy for the rocks and not the sand.

To truly succeed in your career, you need to win when it matters, which is the second half. Most people win in the first half, very few in the second. However, success in the second half does not happen based on what you do in the second half. It has to be catalysed by the foundation-building you do in the first.

Foundation-building in the first half is easier said than done. There are three key barriers people have to overcome to do the foundation-building:

  • Inability to delay gratification.
  • The pressure of winning the rat race.
  • Lack of knowledge and suitable guidance on how to do foundation-building.

Are you taking career decisions in your first half in a way that results in you experiencing full, end-to-end learning cycles, as opposed to experiencing many half and incomplete ones?

Are your career decisions maximizing the opportunity to participate in major learning cycles and to fully juice the ones you participate in?

Overall, you will experience many cycles in a long career. However, among all those cycles, there would be only a few major learning cycles. Major learning cycles are those which are career-defining, those that have the greatest impact on building your algorithm

In a career spanning twenty-five years, while I have experienced many learning cycles, there have only been four major learning cycles. I want to describe some of them for the benefit of the readers. It was in my first company, Asian Paints, that I experienced two major learning cycles in about a decade. The first was early on, when I was a brand/product manager. It was a cycle in which I spent over three years at a go, learning the fundamentals of marketing, something that has stood me in good stead all my life.

The second major learning cycle for me was when I was fortunate to be made part of an end-to-end organization transformation project, working along with a consulting company. The project lasted six months, possibly the most enlightening six months of my career, but the learning cycle lasted over three years. The next learning cycle was when I joined a new company in a turnaround situation. The business was not performing well when I joined, and there were many days when I felt it was a hopeless situation and that it was taking too much effort for no return. Yet, with some persistence, I stayed there for four years, effected a successful turnaround and, in the process, experienced one of my major learning cycles. It taught me how to turn around an underperforming business, how to deal with adversity and how to motivate people in difficult situations. My next major learning cycle was when I made a cross-functional move from being a business leader all my life to being the HR head for Cadbury India. This cycle involved learning an entirely new space and then creating value. I did it for three years and saw the value being created, understood which of my business skills mattered in HR and, most importantly, gave myself enough time so that the theoretical aspects of HR actually penetrated the practical aspects of my leadership style and changed me as a leader.

Foundation-building in the first half is the catalyst for success in the second half. To make the right career choices in the first half, take decisions that maximize real individual growth rather than short-term career success. Focusing on career choices that favour depth over width is important for foundation-building. Depth drives skill-building, which is more important for the experience algorithm in the longer term. Length in roles also allows you to learn how to get to high-hanging fruit, which is important for success in the second half. There will be many learning cycles that you will experience in your career. However, out of these many, there would be only 4–5 major learning cycles. These will be the career-defining ones. It is important to know when you are in one of them. Always take decisions that allow you to complete a major learning cycle; never leave one incomplete. Get out there when you can. It is important to learn the nuts and bolts of business early in your career.

There are three characteristics I would advise you to look for in a mentor:

A mentor is necessarily senior to you, not a peer or somebody of similar profile, but somebody who is distinctly ahead of you in the career curve. The reason for this is that you expect a mentor to provide a different view of your career from the one you have. Let’s visualize your forty-year career as a 40 km-long road you are travelling on. Let us say you have worked for ten years and hence your view of your career is looking forward from the ten-year point towards the next thirty years in a forty-year career. In that thirty-year view, maybe the next few years can be visualized, but thereafter, it becomes difficult to visualize clearly. Let us say your mentor has worked for twenty years, and has two views of your career. For the 10–20-year path, your mentor has a view looking backwards, a view different from yours. For the 20–40-year phase, they have a view looking forward. Fundamentally, this means you are able to get two views to making a career decision—your view, which is a view looking forward, and your mentor’s, which is a combination of looking forward and backwards. Your mentor’s different view can give you a perspective on your career choices that may not be apparent to you. You cannot get this different view if your mentor is not senior to you or ahead of you in the career path. Your peers and friends often have a similar profile and their advice is useful in making career choices, but it is often from a view which is similar to yours. A good mentor’s advice is invaluable in making the right career choice because of the different view they bring.

A mentor is necessarily someone who knows you well and hence does not give generic career advice, but gives advice based on a good understanding of you. A good way of thinking is that you don’t want a career counsellor, but somebody who deeply understands you, what drives you, your strengths and motivations, what you can be successful in, and hence is able to provide you a perspective with that in-depth understanding of you.

A mentor should not be in your line of authority and leadership. That’s because you don’t want the mentor to have a conflict between their allegiance to the organization, their own interests and what is right for you. You want a mentor to advise you from only one lens—what is good for you in the longer term—with no other conflict of interest.

External stakeholders like your bosses and mentors are tremendous catalysts for real individual growth and long-term career success.

There are three things you can do, that are in your influence, to improve the chance that you get a good boss—being a good subordinate, working in companies which have a higher percentage of good bosses and hanging on to good bosses when you find them.

Mentors are critical to ensuring that you make the right career decisions in an increasingly VUCA-filled business and career world. Finding the right mentor is important, and when you find the right one, cultivating your relationship with them over time is critical.

Among the poorest career decisions I have seen people make is the decision to quit as a consequence of the decision to join.

Before quitting. it would be worthwhile to ask yourself these questions:- “What is good and bad with my current company?” and “What is good or bad with the company I propose to join?” Most of the times people do not look at all the four quadrants before coming to a decision. When people first make the decision to quit and then find the reasons to justify and rationalize it, what tends to happen is that they actually see only two quadrants properly. Those two quadrants are ‘My current organization—What is bad’ and ‘My future organization—What can be good.’

Please make sure you evaluate the new opportunity based on how effective it will be in building the experience algorithm, how likely it is to provide you major learning cycles and how likely you are to get good bosses there who would build your foundation and drive your learning. These are more important aspects in evaluating the ‘join’ decision than pay, designation and career prospects.

Career decisions, including the decision to change companies, are among the most important decisions you will take and usually impact how successful you are in your career. The right decisions will maximize real individual growth and the wrong decisions will curtail it. In that context, I do believe long stints in the same company are highly beneficial to the experience algorithm-building because the experience curve moves from being a linear curve to an exponential curve in long stints.

The decision to quit your current organization and the decision to join a new one are two different decisions. They are best made independent of each other. Ideally, the decision to quit must be made even before you start to explore and consider outside opportunities.

The decision to quit your current organization should be driven by the fundamental reasons of learning and fit. Learning is about saying your experience algorithm growth has slowed down and fit is about values and culture. Other reasons like pay, designation and negative triggers like a temporary bad phase should have a lower weightage in the quit decision. The four quadrant technique is a good way of evaluating if you have made a sound decision or if you have made the decision first and then found reasons to justify it.

For the join decision, evaluating prospective learning and fit in the new company is more important than pay and other prospects. Will the new place accelerate your real individual growth? Will the new place have a culture and value system where you will fit in and find it easy to deliver in?

Leadership = (Position + Content) × Values