When I started travelling all over the world from the 1990s, I got a chance to observe global professionals, from cab drivers to surgeons, from waitresses to software engineers at work. I was always fascinated with the idea of excellence and over the years, started making copious mental notes on what made someone a great professional. In the process, I always compared Indian professionals with their counterparts elsewhere because I realized that our definitive journey into the league of developed nations would be led by the Indian professional.
When professionals of a country, across board, are world-class, the country becomes world-class.
When we use the term “professional” it is not just about the highly paid; only the chosen few, who have been lucky to get a professional degree in engineering or medicine. A hairdresser is as much a professional as is a cardiac surgeon. As India bursts forth in the next decade and joins the G8, we have a huge task ahead of ourselves. Our professionals have innumerable strengths from empathy to improvisation but we also have significant weaknesses when compared to the best- in-class.
Much of it is not about big things; they are about small things but no one points those out; no one makes information available to those who need it. Allow me to share a few personal experiences.
I had taken a guest to the Bandipur National Forest. I just love the place. It has the highest population of felines and elephants, rich in other flora and fauna; it has never let a visitor down. This once, we were being taken to the jungle by naturalist. He worked for the private resort we were staying in. After the briefing on the ground, he asked us to get into the jeep and then got in beside us. This is when both the guest and I literally churned inside. The man reeked of cigarette smell. It came, not just from his breath, his clothing, even his hands gave out the smell.
I have nothing against smokers, but this man just obnoxiously smelt of nicotine. You can smoke but you need to be particularly sensitive if you are in the service industry in which you can come into close proximity with others or you could be in a closed environment like an air-conditioned office. The naturalist did not know it and as the vehicle moved into the jungle and went over rough terrain, his excited babble increased; each time he sighted a bird or an animal, he had to give us the whole nine yards and we had no way to tell him to talk to the winds and not to us. After a while, as we were deep inside the forest, we suddenly spotted a pack of wild dogs. He got so excited that he slapped me on my thigh! “Take pictures, take pictures”, he told me without realizing what he had done.
I do not blame him. He has been instructed to be friendly and no one has told him that being a naturalist is not just about knowledge of the jungle but about grooming and etiquette. Most visitors who meet him would not be comfortable to give an instant, on the spot, feedback. It is not the Indian way. If one fills up a feedback form while leaving the resort, it is bound to be anonymous, watered down and lose its real impact to change behavior.
The jungle is not the only place where such things happen.
Back in civilization, the other day, I went for a haircut (okay, don’t laugh) and as I sat through the experience, once in every five minutes, the barber’s cell phone went off with its shrill ring tone. Each time, he would simply stop his work, pick up the phone and have a conversation for a few minutes before returning to his job. I could clearly see that he liked receiving those calls; what good after all is a phone that does not ring? How else could he come across as someone in demand and successful?
On Sunday last, I was shooting for Zen Garden in Bhubaneswar.
The local photographer on assignment was suddenly not available to Forbes India and a stringer photo-journalist came in his place. So far, so good. We were to go and shoot an interview with a lady. As the young photographer got into the car with me, I realised that he had had a couple of drinks during the day and it was obvious that he had smoked to let the breath go away (mistakenly so) and then chewed a paan; the cocktail now had made things worse. I wanted to ask him to get down and get lost. But I could not; I was in the city for a few hours and could not change plans. As we did the photo-shoot, I had to ensure that the photographer remained miles away from the lady.
Before you think that it is the naturalist, the barber, the photographer who did not understand the importance of etiquette and grooming as part of professional ambassadorship, let me hasten to state that highly paid professionals sometimes exhibit the very same, and sometimes, worse behavior.
Consider a young journalist who met me from a newspaper in Chennai (yes, Chennai!) who had a large tattoo seeking attention from under the neckline of her dress. Or, an entrepreneur I know who came to meet me; he brings along a woman friend of his who he knows professionally but I am meeting for the first time. During the conversation, he kept touching her arms and at one time, when everyone laughed during a particular discussion, he slapped her on her knee. I cringed. The thing is that, he was actually not flirting with her; I know him well enough for that. But he did not know how much of show of familiarity is good and where the limits are.
Folks, this is where Shital Kakkar Mehra comes in. She has just published her book “Business Etiquette: A Guide for the Indian Professional”. But before the book, a few words about her.
Shital is one of the most pleasing personalities I have ever come across. She is well informed, authentic, she likes her work and she is here to tell us, guide us all, on how to handle ourselves professionally. The naturalist, the barber and the photo journalist are important ambassadors of India. They symbolize the concept of professionalism as much as you and I do. Given the right inputs — most organizations are either ignorant or ill-equipped — they could be well-informed, well rounded, pleasant and in the process, personally way more successful.
Shital is specially trained to write a book like this one here; it is about a subject she not only knows well but she loves. The book is written lucidly. In it, she tells us about business communication, dressing for success, civility at workplace, networking, dining and social skills for cross-cultural effectiveness. It should be read by every young professional and I hope that it would be soon translated into regional languages soon so that the message spreads into the hinterland where India is emerging faster than we realize.
Shital has spoken at business schools and conducted in-house seminars. I have never attended those. But I did have the chance to listen to her speak about her book; answering reader questions at her recent book launch in Bangalore. I was impressed with her knowledge of the subject, affection for it, and her simplicity in communicating ideas, her capacity to explain things in a wonderfully inclusive way. So, if you ever get a chance, do meet her. But meanwhile, go pick up your copy of the book. Gift it to anyone who you think can benefit from it and help make the Indian professional world-class.