“Life Is Not A Sprint, It Is A Marathon”

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He is followed by everyone in the electronics industry. He plays outstanding cricket and implements the learnings from the game into his leadership style. He headed Samsung’s R&D for TVs in India at the age of 29. His first job offer was a sum of consistency and perseverance that he showcased. He interviews India’s top political as well as non-political leaders. He writes about lessons from his life. He is currently leading Panasonic’s India and South Asia team from the front foot. This is Manish Sharma’s story as told to EFY’s Mukul Yudhveer Singh

MANISH SHARMA, CHAIRMAN & CEO, PANASONIC INDIA AND SOUTH ASIA
MANISH SHARMA, CHAIRMAN & CEO, PANASONIC INDIA AND SOUTH ASIA

Born in Birla Nagar (Gwalior), Madhya Pradesh, Manish Sharma refers to himself as someone who has been blessed with good people throughout. In fact, he has an amicable nature and the knack of developing relationships. He does not shy away from admitting that he learnt the importance of developing good relations at a very early age. He learnt this and many other things from his father who worked in the Birla Group and his father’s elder brother who was president and a director in Birla Group.

“When I was growing up, I had really good friends. I think a lot of people would be able to relate with me and agree that genuine friendships are made in the initial stages of your life. You tend to become more practical when you start growing up and you are then not able to do justice to deep rooting your relationships. The childhood friends are pretty deep rooted in your life, and so is the case with me,” he recalls.

Manish completed his schooling from Carmel Convent School in Gwalior. A typical day for Manish would end by 8.00 PM, while the mornings used to be a little early. He is never late for meetings, events, or anything that he has committed time to.

“A typical day at school was full of action. You go to school, come back, finish your homework, and go out to play. The TVs were not there so we had a lot of physical activities on our hands. Weekends were filled with activities like picnics. That was a different era altogether as there was very low penetration of things like TVs and internet,” he shares.
Manish has been fascinated with the world of electronics since his school days. He remembers how electronics was a major inspiration for many in the city of Gwalior; many had heard about electronic goods but only a few had experienced them physically. Manish was so fascinated with electronics that he designed a lift for a school exhibition.

“I was very fond of seeing the repair guys seated in one corner of the showroom. One of the reasons for my fondness was magnets. When speakers get repaired, you get magnets out of them. I would use those magnets for a variety of purposes,” he recalls as he walks down the memory lane.

Manish, in the process of growing up, has lost some friends, made new ones, and learned about life. The challenges he has faced in his early schooling days include getting up at 4.30 in the morning and running to preparation classes for engineering colleges and universities. One of the finest skills that Manish has developed over time is how to resonate with others. When asked how one resonates with others, he answers, “It is a combination of natural talent and how you groom that talent. The same is true for leadership also.”

He adds, “In my case I did not participate much in stage shows or debates during my schooling years. If I try to relate my life today with my school life, I would like to be on the stage to talk to people. People can develop skills over time. Some of these skills are already there, and these just need a trigger, others are learned over time.”

Manish’s uncle (father’s elder brother) was president with the Birla Group. Manish spent a lot of time with his uncle and learnt a lot of leadership and relationship lessons from him. “He had a specific aura around him. I got several chances to spend a lot of time with him once he retired and started living in Delhi. I was able to relate a lot with his experiences of life,” he says.

An avid reader, Manish has read loads of books, and is of the view that books can inspire people in many ways. Not a big fan of fiction, he enjoys reading autobiographies, books on philosophy and life the most. Manish also enjoys reading the work of Panasonic’s founder Konosuke Matsushita.

“When it comes to autobiographies, I think both the Steve Jobs autobiographies will inspire you a lot. The movie on Steve is good but I think it does not do justice to the challenges faced by the legend, whereas the book is much more detailed about the same. Then a basic book like Ikigai can teach you a lot. I have read Alchemist many times,” he shares.
So, who have been the biggest inspirations for Manish Sharma? He answers, “My mom, dad, and dad’s elder brother.”

Manish’s mother is an intelligent lady who thinks much ahead of time, and is liberal, empowering, and characterful. She would give space yet draw guardrails and inculcate value systems rather than telling things directly. She is the lady behind the strong value systems that got inculcated in her children. It lets them still keep their heads stable, irrespective of what the environment is. “My mother is still the biggest inspiration for me,” he says proudly.

Cricket, life, leadership

Manish was 11 when India’s legendary Kapil Dev lifted the first cricket World Cup ever won by the country. While the moment was as inspiring for Manish as for every Indian, this was also the time when his family owned a TV set for the first time.

“We were trying our hands at many sports including swimming, tennis, billiards, table tennis, cricket, and a lot more. As it happens, cricket is a religion for almost everyone in the country. The year 1983 was the time when me and millions of other Indians found inspiration in cricket. It was also the time when TVs had started coming into the town I lived in,” recalls Manish.

Manish’s maternal uncle had an electronics showroom in Gwalior, and the man who drives Panasonic India today never missed a chance to visit the same and try his hands at selling electronics. The year 1983 was a time when consumer electronics like TVs had just started making their journey into towns like Gwalior.

“My mamaji used to be a leading retailer of electronic goods in Gwalior, and he was amongst the top few in the country. He was not just retailing products from top consumer electronic brands but was also getting radios manufactured locally. I, on weekends, used to go to the showroom owned by him and try selling products like Murphy radios, Philips radios, Ahuja public address systems, and lots of other things,” he shares.

Manish Sharma playing cricket at Panasonic factory in Jhajjar, Haryana

“I do remember the nostalgic moment when Kapil Dev took that memorable catch of Vivian Richards. The TVs back then were all about showing hazy pictures, but that moment become inspiration for millions of people like me. I picked up a coffee-table book, which had photos of the Indian cricket team and their World Cup moments,” he recalls.

The days following the 1983 World Cup were filled with Manish playing cricket. Manish does not refer to himself as a good player but says he was lucky as he was able to score for the teams he played with when it mattered the most.

And what’s playing all these sports has enabled Manish to do? “I am a jack of all trades and master of none. I can try my hand in almost any sport, but I am a master of none,” he says.

A look at his professional innings and one realises that the man who is chairman of Panasonic India and South Asia is actually a master of overseeing strategy planning and business development for Panasonic. A closer scrutiny and you will find that Manish has worked in front-end operations, headed R&D, has been the chief of marketing and sales, and has worked on business development.

To add cherry to the cake, he is a prolific writer, one who shares his experiences around leadership and a lot of other things on Linkedin. He also has a Youtube channel named Duologues where he interacts with public figures around leadership lessons. His conversation skills, and skills that make him resonate with the majority, or the right target audience, have probably played a big role in what he has achieved today.

“Cricket is by far the sport that I love to follow the most. It has so many learnings. I have seen that people who have committed themselves to the game and respect the game have done extraordinary. Whereas no matter how committed one is towards the game, but does not respect the game, ends up doing ordinary things,” he says. The game of cricket, as he shares, teaches a lot of leadership and how one can react in tough times. He is of the view that a lot of people in India learn their first leadership lessons through the game of cricket.

“Every individual is a sum total of people around. I think this is one of the biggest learnings that come from the game of cricket. It takes one ball to take a wicket and one ball to lose or win a game. On the other hand, there are so many overs, and in test matches so many days available. Cricket has taught me that life is not a sprint, it is a marathon. Cricket teaches us when to live life like a marathon and when to live it like a sprint,” he shares.

He adds, “Cricket teaches you to adapt in accordance with changing times and situations. Life is like that, you cannot live life like a sprint. All the three formats (T20, One Days, Tests) have different learnings. You have to continuously imagine, plan, adjust, think, and then execute.”

College and financial crisis

When you get born in an established family and are given almost everything a child can dream of in school days, you quickly draw assumptions about how cool your life is going to be once you join a college for higher studies. But this was not the case with Manish.

“My father tried his hands at business when I was 16, and we started facing several difficulties. I think those financial difficulties were why I promised myself to establish a career as a professional, and also stay away from business,” says Manish.

It is interesting to note here that Manish, while choosing what he would be studying in the 11th and 12th standard, changed his mind at the last minute. He wanted to either pursue commerce or biology, but instead went ahead with mathematics. Part influenced by the developments happening around him, and part influenced by what his best friend wanted to study, Manish went ahead and decided to be an engineer. Manish was always among the top five students of the class, but he was unclear about what he wanted to do in life. He has always counted himself in the list of people who take life and address situations as they come.

Talking about his close friend, he says, “I asked him to take biology, but he said how can we live our lives without being engineers. We both loved electronics, and electronics has a close association with engineering. Germany has always been known for its engineers and this friend’s father often visited Germany as an engineer. My friend said we will get to visit Germany once we become engineers and hence started the journey of becoming one,” he shares jokingly.

The mountain of difficulties and financial instability started haunting the Sharma family when the business that Manish’s father was trying hands at started going south.

“It is not just about facing difficulties as a family but also about witnessing behavioural changes from your near and dear ones. My family never let me feel the hardships. I could only sense something was wrong whenever I returned home from hostel during holidays.

My mother took care of the house, and my father was trying hands at one thing or the other. I think I learned the art of handling and addressing crises from him,” he shares.

Manish explains how he learnt to remain calm in tough times from his parents during the financial crisis situation. The situation that lasted over four years made the family go through bounce-backs, losses, and a lot of other hardships. The situation only kept worsening before Manish’s father went back to work as a professional in the textile industry. Manish’s mother, during this entire time, made sure that her children were insulated from the situation, so that they could concentrate on studies. Manish now makes sure to insulate his team when hardships fall upon Panasonic, and he is super proud that he has learnt it from his mother.

“I try to become an insulator of sorts for my teams here at Panasonic. Experiences like those inculcate such strong habits in you. If you have to bring the best out of people you do not sit inside their heads. A guardrail has to be provided to people because they have to gain maturity continuously. You have to give them the freedom to learn, explore, and express,” he shares.

Arms drop, and the first job

The best way to enquire about open jobs today is probably through internet. You can search a company’s website for open positions, and at the same time leave your profile on several job portals. Manish, however, belongs to a decade when job hunting meant hopping from one office to another, from one city to another, dropping resumes physically, and repeating the whole process in case you were not satisfied with the job you got.

Manish was not able to secure a job through the campus placement route, and hence began the journey mentioned above. He was able to secure a job in Delhi with help from a connection of his. Manish got placed in Dharuhera in Haryana. The building of this company was still under construction. Manish, within an hour of reaching the project site, realised that this was not the place he wanted to be in.

“I landed a job in Delhi with a company which was into manufacturing of fibre-optic cables. Despite the huge pressure of getting settled and starting to earn, I decided not to go ahead with the company. My wife was my friend from college life, and we were clear about getting married after securing the first job,” he explains.

Manish explained everything to his mother and was back to Gwalior the same evening after he had visited the project site. This happened to be the time when the state government of Madhya Pradesh was busy setting up the Malanpur Industrial Area, approximately 10 kilometres from

Manish’s hometown. Big names, including JK Tyres and Cadbury, had already announced their intention to set up units in the area. LG had also announced that it would be doing a joint venture with Hotline in the area.

“The duo decided to have a CRT factory in Malanpur. I thought this was the place to be. It was a multinational company and being there would mean being nurtured in a very professional environment,” he shares with a smile.

He adds, “We trained ourselves in college to take lift for travelling from one point to another. Every morning I would take a lift to reach Malanpur that was about 45 minutes away from my home. I sat in trucks, lorries, on top of buses and many other things to reach Malanpur every day.”

The first time Manish got to see the LG Hotline facility it was in its greenfield phase. He recalls a huge parcel of land being levelled by JCBs and trucks. He went to the security guard and requested to let him speak to HR once. The security guard told him to visit the Delhi office as all the recruitment was being done from the Delhi office only. “I told him I was coming from Delhi and would not return to Delhi in any case,” Manish recalls telling the security guard.

Manish Sharma at LG Hotline

“It was clear to me that something big was coming up on that parcel of land. I would meet the security guard every day and request him to let me meet the HR department personnel. Every time I would get the same answer that neither the DGM nor the head of the personnel department was present,” he recalls.

However, he never lost hope and continued travelling to Malanpur every day, taking lifts to reach the partially-constructed facility. He did not go to any other facility as he was sure that LG Hotline was where he wanted to start his professional innings.

“I would sit near a tea-stall, drink I do not know how many cups of tea, and go through the newspaper from morning to evening. Then came a day when an Ambassador car arrived on the door of the facility. A person rolled down the windows and started speaking to the security guard. Next moment, I was called by the security guard. I was standing there with the chief of security speaking to the person in the car. He was the DGM of the facility. The DGM told me to head to Delhi as all the recruitment was done from there,” shares Manish.

He adds, “I gave him the same answer that I wouldn’t go back to Delhi and requested him for an interview opportunity. I don’t know what he saw in me, but he asked the security to help me meet Rakesh Singh. This was the moment when I realised that I might be able to get a job there!”

Success is yours, failure is mine

Rakesh Singh’s first response to Manish was the same as that of chief of security and DGM. He told Manish that the facility only hires from Delhi and does not conduct any interviews at this facility. Manish’s response, “Sir, I have already spent time in Nehru Place, Dharuhera, and other places in Delhi, and have no further intentions to go back there. Please take my interview!”

Rakesh Singh agreed to conduct an interview, but his first question to an engineer looking for a job was not related to engineering, not even remotely connected to it. The question was, “What are your views on Purulia Arms Drop?” This question, back then, had the intensity to shake not just engineers but students preparing for India’s most coveted exams like the Civil Services. Manish looked above and thanked the almighty for the question that Rakesh Singh had asked him! After all, he had been reading the newspapers for more than five hours every day while sitting at that tea stall waiting for the DGM to arrive, and Purulia Arms Drop was on the front page of every newspaper.

“I was reading about the Purulia Arms Drop in the newspaper from the last five to seven days. I might have not been able to answer a lot of other things, but this was my forte. That was how I got my first opportunity to work,” he shares laughingly.

Manish underwent training around commissioning of machines, cold run, trial runs, production, and a lot of other things here. It was his first job, but he was already being trained to set up a facility from scratch. This facility always had 25 to 30 expatriates from South Korea. These expatriates trained Manish and others regarding processes, quality systems, production, 5S, and many other aspects. Manish thanks Rakesh Singh for whatever he is today. Singh, who took Manish’s interview, was also his boss at the facility.

“I believe that your first boss plays a major role in defining the kind of leader you would be when your time comes. That is what happened to me also. Some of the past learnings and experiences coupled with the kind of leaders you work with, the kind of people you meet, make you what you are,” he says.

Working in the corporate culture is no rocket science, but with cut-throat competition and ever-evolving business definitions, it many a times is one of the most difficult verticals to work in. You might have often heard professionals complaining about how their colleagues and bosses stole their idea. Manish, in his brilliantly on-going professional innings, has also headed Samsung’s R&D team for colour televisions. Samsung was the place where Manish first heard and learned to practice what’s referred to as “Success is all yours, failure is mine.”

Manish first heard it from one of the managing directors of Samsung. When an MD was edged over by another company in terms of sales of colour TVs in India, Samsung appointed a new MD. The MD took over the office and called up a meeting of all the teams involved. The MD then asked the teams to collaborate to come up with a plan to counter the company that was outdoing Samsung’s TV business. By the way Manish was only 29 when he was given the opportunity to head Samsung’s R&D for colour televisions.

“Seven days passed just like that and nothing around the plan was ready. We made an absurd plan, and showed the same to the MD. We thought that the new MD would disapprove of the plan instantly. But he approved the plan and said ‘Success is all your guys, go out in the market and do the best you can, and failure is mine. If you fail, I will take the failure.’ And he left the room.”

Manish shared how the entire team sitting in the meeting room was left speechless. They had seen a guy who had complete faith in his team, a guy who was ready to take blame for all the failures. The team went to the drawing board again, created a new strategy, and executed the same in a successful manner.

“There I learnt how leaders should be. For me leaders are not like those who work on reports only. Leaders for me are people who empower people with the ability to take decisions and motivate you to execute plans. I think that is how people like me learn from everyday life. People around me do not know what I encountered yesterday and what I am going through today. I think everyone has an equal amount of capabilities. It is a matter of two things. First is pre-ordained and second is in line with the kind of people you meet. What kind of chances come to you and how you take those chances,” he says.

Manish Sharma at Gatishakti

Retirement, what retirement?

Today, Manish is known as one of the finest leaders in India. He is overseeing the entire operations of Panasonic and helping the team grow day by day. “I lead a very simple life. You will never see success riding on me. I try to maintain an open-door policy. I do not want to have a hierarchical structure. It should be like everybody is equal. Success and failures are a matter of time. I have seen so many ups and downs that you would see me behaving the same in almost every situation,” he says.

The word retirement, as Manish says, is misunderstood by a lot of people. It might mean that Manish would not be into full-time responsibility as the time progresses. “If I am fit, I would like to continue with full-time responsibility. I am reasonably clear that one day I would take the mentorship role and help companies and startups grow. I want to live life, learn from life, write, travel, and I would like to meet a lot of new people and understand new cultures,” he shares his retirement plans.

He adds, “Everything that happens with you is an outcome of what you think and what you do. If your thinking is consistent and pure, and it is not for you but for people and society, things will happen to you.”

What’s Manish Sharma’s vision for India?

“The kind of diversity, knowledge, and wisdom that India possesses is immense. I think we have not been able to provide our people with opportunities that are on an equal magnitude. I am not sure why we have not been able to do so. That is not in our hands, but what is in our hands is how soon and effectively we can catalyze this process from this point. I mean who had rich legacies like yoga, ayurveda, and a lot of other things. All four seasons are so rich. Tell me one country in the world which has so much diversity. I will try to catalyze the process even in the smallest manner possible. Helping develop new technology, bringing technology to India, helping people grab new opportunities, are some of the opportunities I think I can click,” he shares.

Would Manish Sharma ever want to help the country formulate policies?

“I have great respect for the role that civil servants are playing today. I never thought of becoming an IAS officer but the last 10 to 12 years have allowed me to work closely with guys making policies. That is some fantastic work that they are doing. The more you are close to them, the more you understand the kind of hard work they are doing. Yes, I would want to be like bureaucrats,” he answers.


 

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