If you asked me to tell you in one word; only one word, the secret of success, I would say, “Differentiate.”
Let me begin with a question; “What do you ask for when you go to the corner store to buy toothpaste?” Do you say to the attendant, “Please give me toothpaste?” If you did, what would happen?
Maybe you should try this out the next time you go shopping. What would happen is that the store attendant would ask you, “Which brand would you like?” You will face the same situation if you went to buy almost anything in the market unless it was buying mangoes from a street vendor. Products are known, recognized, and bought by their brand.
I teach career management in global corporations and have been doing that since 1994. You can see my presentation on career management on my YouTube channel Yawar Baig Associates and to the presentation is Careers in Global Corporations .
I’ve taught this course in GE, Motorola, IBM, Microsoft, National Semiconductor, and many other corporations in America, India, and elsewhere. But more importantly, this is what I practice myself, in my lifelong effort to add value to others and thereby to myself. That is how I define my career. That is my differentiation. Adding value to others.
What Is Differentiation?
Differentiation is to stand out. Not blend in. Incidentally, that is also how I define leadership. Let me give you another example; how do you introduce yourself?
More than likely you say, “I am an IT professional or engineer, doctor, teacher, whatnot.” Well, so are a million other people in the world. You are one in a million in the wrong sense. You need to become one in a million in the sense of that proverb. That is differentiation.
Because Differentiation creates Brand.
Brand inspires Loyalty.
Loyalty enables Influence.
Nobody understands this better than Apple. Or Coke for that matter. And that is why these brands inspire loyalty that seems extreme and even absurd to others. But it is neither.
It translates into a totally loyal customer base which is money in the bank and makes Apple and Coke the most valuable brands in the world.
In the podcast that goes with this article, I will tell you a story about a brand that happened with me in 1996 and has stayed with me all these years and is one of the most powerful illustrations of the power of brands. Don’t miss that podcast. Please subscribe to our channel and you will be alerted every week with a new episode.
How can I differentiate, you ask? Let me tell you a story from my life. But first, the principle; you differentiate by doing what the rest of the world is not doing and doing it in a way that is graceful, dignified, and beneficial to all concerned.
1. Inspiring Respect By Standing Out
Differentiation is not about being freaky. It is about standing out in a way that inspires respect and the desire to emulate in those who see you.
It was 1989 and I was a Manager in the tea plantation industry in South India. I had been in the industry since 1983 and had developed a reputation for high productivity and excellent labor relations. A very big advantage in a highly labor-intensive industry with a militant unionized workforce. I was ambitious, high-energy and looked forward to a fast-track career.
At that time, I was transferred to our company’s garden in Assam. The job was at the same level as I was at but came with better perquisites and a slightly bigger span of responsibility. What it also came with was the ‘opportunity’ to be as far away from the company headquarters as is geographically possible, when your company HQ is in Chennai.
For some, this may have looked like a good thing. To me, it didn’t. In the corporate world, ‘out of sight is out of mind’. So, I declined the transfer. This was not easy for me or my bosses. This was a trying period because suddenly I had no specific job.
I had to leave my job as the Manager on Lower Sheikalmudi Estate because that job had already been assigned to another colleague. That left me literally homeless as there were no bungalows in the Anamallais where I could live. It is a measure of my reputation with the company and the understanding of my superiors that I was not simply sent home for refusing to accept the transfer.
I was sent off to Mango Range until the management could decide what to do with me. We stayed there for six months. I was getting my salary, but I had no work. No office, no superiors to report to. No assignment. Nothing to do.
I was assigned a bungalow in a forest thicket, which was in a dilapidated condition. The location of the bungalow was lovely, and it was a joy to wake up to bird calls every morning. However, the house itself looked like it would collapse on our heads at any time.
Of particular concern were the walls, which were so waterlogged that they had fungus growing on them in huge patches. My wife is an amazing homemaker and all her talents were put to test in this place. Out of this dilapidated house, she created a lovely home that we enjoyed living in.
Now, this is where differentiation comes in. Anyone else in my position would have done one of two things. Either they would have resigned and tried to find another job. Or they would have considered this period as a paid holiday and enjoyed it.
I enjoyed it alright, but not as a paid holiday and I didn’t leave or even try to find another job. I loved my job in the plantations and had no intention of leaving until someone kicked me out. So, I wanted to ensure that didn’t happen. Since I had no regular job, I decided on doing two things:
2. Change The System
For a long time, I had been talking about the need for systematic training of new assistant managers. The current system in the plantations was that a new assistant would be put under a manager and what he learned or didn’t depended on the capability, interest, and energy of himself and his manager and field or factory officers.
If the assistant was lucky and got some people who were both knowledgeable and interested in teaching, then he learnt a great deal. If not, he remained guessing. This is a highly undesirable system, which is very time and energy-intensive and does not give standard results.
I had been advocating for several years the need for a standard textbook on tea plantation management, which could be used to provide standardized training. Any additional inputs that the young man’s manager and staff could give him would only add to this, but he would not be deficient in the basics.
3. Showcase Your Knowledge
During my stay in Mango Range, I decided to write this book and in 6 months, I produced a 200-page Manual of Tea Plantation Management. Remember, this was before we had access to computers. The best we could get was a 386 desktop and DOS-OS.
So, I wrote the book on an ordinary typewriter and then re-entered it all on a 386 at the head office when it was done. No copy-paste, no cut and paste, no autocorrect or spell-check. Windows were in the wall and what sat in your lap couldn’t be typed upon. At the time of its publication, there was no such book on the market, and it was a source of great satisfaction for me.
My company published it as an internal training book and though it was never a commercial publication, it did get fairly wide publicity and was used by many new managers. The biggest lesson for me was about the power of the written word and its high credibility in making your customer base aware of what you have to offer.
I never forgot that lesson and today, I have just published my 35th book. After that book, there was no way that I could be ignored, not that I feared that. I had a lot of people who I had dealt with over the years rooting for me in the company.
4. Learn From Experts
The second thing I did was to spend a lot of time in Mango Range factory and hone my expertise in CTC manufacture of tea. I was very fortunate in that Mr. T.V. Verghese, who had retired as a General Manager in Tata Tea and was consulting with our company on CTC manufacture, was a regular visitor and we became good friends.
He shared his knowledge freely and I learned a great deal. He was a practical teacher, which meant that I got to spend a lot of time on my back on the floor meshing CTC rollers with grease anywhere on my face and body that grease would stick. I learned all aspects of manufacture hands-on, further reinforcing my belief that learning comes from doing – not from talking about doing.
In Murugalli Estate, I’d had a lot of experience in Orthodox manufacture, and even though I had built Mayura Factory, the premier CTC factory in South India, I was moved as soon as the construction was over – thanks to a motorcycle accident. Consequently, my knowledge of CTC manufacture was weak.
In Mango Range, as a student of Mr. T. V. Verghese and thanks to his willingness to teach, I rectified that deficiency. It was ironic that thereafter I went to Ambadi, which was a rubber plantation and never really used this knowledge, but it did come in use for writing a paper comparing Orthodox and CTC methods, which I presented at the UPASI Annual Conference in 1989.
Mango Range was an interlude in my career. I was marking time and waiting for some positive change to happen, and in the meanwhile, I enjoyed myself. It has long been my philosophy to live one day at a time and to try to create as much happiness for myself and around me as possible. I have learned that the two are the same. You can only be happy if those around you are happy.
This is true whether you are an individual, an organization, or a country. Imagine what a wonderful world we would have if instead of competing, we collaborated and shared resources. We would all be wealthier, happier, and healthier. I have always held that the secret of happiness is to be thankful for and enjoy the small things in life. There are far many more of them than the big events.
If we can enjoy the small things, then we can be happy all the time. The key to enjoyment is to appreciate them and be thankful for them. An attitude of gratitude. The key to contentment is not amassing material but in being thankful for what one has. The happiest people are those who are content. Content people are those who are thankful. Material wealth has nothing to do with it.
One of the things that I was very appreciative of and thankful for was the leisure that I had in Mango Range. I had no specific work except what I decided to do for myself. And I was still getting my salary. So, I decided to learn golf. I got a caddy from Ooty Golf Club to come and stay with me in the estate for three weeks.
His name was Frank Augustine (I used to call him Frankenstein) and he looked like a dried prawn. When he swung the club though, he always hit the ball with that sweet phut that all golfers love to hear. And the ball would travel straight like a bullet down the freeway. Whereas my club would come up with a good measure of earth and top the ball to boot. Shows that technique and not strength of the arm is what works in golf. As it does in many other things in life.
Frankenstein believed in hard work – meaning, making me work hard. He set up a practice net, produced a set of one hundred used golf balls and we were good to go. I would hit the ball into the net until I felt my arms would drop off. All the while, Frankenstein would sit on his haunches under the Champa tree that was to one side and watch me and make clucking noises. The effect of all this clucking and my swinging at the ball became clear when one day about midway in our training Frankenstein suggested that we should go and play a round at the club.
So off we went on the three-hour drive to Ooty. After a cup of tea and a sandwich, I teed off and that is where all the practice paid off. Ooty Golf Club has very narrow freeways bordered by spiky gorse. If you didn’t hit your ball straight, you would send it into the gorse and then you may as well forget about it – or pay to get the ball back by leaving your blood on the gorse and acquiring gorse thorn furrows in your hide. As Frankenstein continued his mother hen act, I could see the distinct improvement in my style and capability.
Differentiation Creates Brand
Differentiation creates Brand. I got noticed and appreciated and was rewarded with one of the toughest jobs in the company. I was sent to New Ambadi Estate as its Manager. Two estates, two factories in Kulasekharam, Kanyakumari District of Tamilnadu, which is geographically in Tamilnadu and spiritually in Kerala. Highly militant, unionized, communist unions with a history of violence. And to top it all, I didn’t know the first thing about rubber estate management.
I had not even seen a rubber tree in my life until then. That is another story of great friends, like Arun, who taught me all about rubber. I successfully faced the tough unions and not only won but made lifelong friends with the union leaders, so that when I was leaving Ambadi three years later, the General Secretary of the CITU, came to my farewell party, unannounced and delivered such a speech that he had us all in tears. But as I said, that is another story.