Saturday, 17 October 2015

Am I Successful?

Hi, I am Alok Agarwal and I am 33 years old. It has been almost 16 years since I started making independent decisions. And I thought it was the right time to introspect the most fundamental question I always wonder about, "Am I successful?"

From being born in a small town Khardah in West Bengal, India to now working at Credit Suisse as Director in London, UK. I think I have achieved a  fair bit. It was not an easy journey and had its own ups and downs. There were times when I was indecisive, when I doubted my own self and when I regretted the decisions I made. But the most important fact is that I moved on. I learned from my mistakes, I tried to make the best of the opportunities I got and at the same time I tried to have my feet firmly on the ground. Success is as much as your own hardwork as is being at the right place at the right time. So it is important to be humble - we are successful not just because of ourselves but also because of support of the people around us and the opportunities presented by life.

I don't remember when I started taking myself seriously and when I got a sense of purpose. On my first day at school (I was 2 years and 6 months old) all I did was stand by the window in my classroom and cry, "bhaiya bhaiya" (brother brother) (my elder brother happened to study in the classroom next to mine). I was sent back home by my class teacher and they opined that I was too young to join the school. I reached home and I started crying again, saying I want to go back to school. I dont know what was going on in my mind then, but I promised my parents that I will never cry again and forced them to send me back to school. And since then there was no looking back.

During my school days, I always struggled in my early years. I used to stammer, I could not pronounce the letter "L" properly and instead pronounced it "Y". So people always used to ask me to say "lala", and much to their mirth, I would say "yaya". Add to this the fact that I was a mediocre performer at school, while my elder brother was a top performer, I gradually started losing my own identity at school - my teachers used to refer to me as Amit's (my elder brother) younger brother rather than as Alok. This used to subconsciously annoy me a lot and it was at this point that I started to work harder - I knew I was not smart or intelligent but I knew I have the ability to work very hard, so I started trying harder. The hard work during my school days did not give me much success - I managed to score amongst the top 10 at school but nothing more than that. I struggled to break into the club of being top 3 in the class (except once and that was largely because others in the class performed badly).

I remember this one incident where my dad bought a bicycle for my elder brother for his top performance at school. The bicycle had trainer-wheels on either side which helped with the balance. It took my brother hardly a week to balance the cycle on its own and then he got the trainer-wheels removed. But I struggled. However, I was determined to learn. I vaguely remember how I used to stand next to the pillar in the largest room in our apartment, push against the pillar while on the cycle, the impact led the cycle to move and it used to complete almost one turn and then I used to fall down. I kept trying this for more than a month and then one day, I did not fall. I had finally learned cycling.

In a country with more than a billion people, everybody has to work really hard to succeed. Any job application in India receives more than 50,000 applications and any college admission gets more than 100,000 applications. Therefore grades and markets are very important, they are used as the first criteria to shortlist applicants.

My secondary school marks (class X) were not great (around 80%, but significantly less than my own expectations) and this closed a few doors that I was looking for post secondary school. I was never inclined towards science, and instead liked commerce.  This was the time when I made the most important decision - focussing on pursuing Chartered Accountant (CA) and divert all my efforts towards it. I joined S A Jaipuria evening college so that I can keep my focus on my CA studies. I have always been a morning person and joining evening college helped me a lot with my studies for  CA.

Higher secondary results were again disappointing (66% marks, class XII) which again closed a few doors for me. However, I managed to clear CA foundation (first level of the CA examination) in the 1st attempt - so there was at least something to cheer about. Decision time again - and I decided to continue with the evening college and continue to focus on pursuing CA. CA requires working with a CA firm for about 3 years to gain experience - this is termed as articleship. So the days became longer - get up at 5 am in the morning, take an hour train journey to attend CA Intermediate tutions, then go to the CA firm for articleship and then go to the college. Most of the days, I used to leave home by 6 am and was back home at 10 pm. The only time I got to study was when some classes were off or in the morning when I used to get up at 4 am.

The CA intermediate (second level of CA examination) results were out and I cleared it in the 1st attempt. But still I was just one of the many people who passed the examination rather than being  amongst the toppers. But I was happy that I was still on the right track.

My first success was in terms of my B.Com second year results (as I said earlier, grades/marks are important and if you are among the top performers, doors automatically open up for you). I got good numbers and it opened up a door that I always wanted to go through. I went for an interview with the principal at St. Xaviers College, Kolkata as I wanted to switch for the 3rd nd final year of my B.Com from Jaipuria College to St. Xaviers College. He asked me a simple question - "classes start at 6 am and you are not allowed to be late. Will you manage?". I said "Yes sir, I will take a local train at 5:10 am and I will be at college by 05:45 am". He asked why do you want to put so much stress on yourself. I gave him an honest answer, "I want an association with a reputed college like yours on my CV". He smiled and agreed. I was now a student of St. Xaviers College. I rate it as an important stepping stone for my success and it also boosted my confidence. From then, I continued to march forward.

I scored in the top 20 across Calcutta University for my B.Com examinations. And for the CA Final examinations - I scored in the top 30 across India. It opened up for me the first great opportunity in the corporate world. The CA institute organises campus recruitment activities at their local offices - I decided to opt for the Mumbai center, though being from Kolkata. I stayed with my friend and accepted an offer from Tata Adminsitrative Services. After training, I joined Tata Power. My stint at Tata Power did not last long. While I enjoyed my stay there in terms of quality of work, I was not very happy with the pay. Also I always wanted to be in financial services so I started regretting my decision to join Tata Power. As fate would have it, one fine day I received a letter from UTI Asset Management. I remembered appearing for an interview with them during the CA campus recruitment, but as far as I knew they did not hire anybody. I opened the letter and to my surprise it was a job offer. The pay was 30% higher than I was getting in Tata and it was in financial services. I decided to go for it!

I was very excited about joining UTI Asset Management as  the world of financial services fascinated me. However, when I joined I was a bit disappointed. I was initially part of the audit team and it was a really boring job. But this changed after a few months and I was re-assigned to the accounts department. However, the quality of work was still not great. But it helped me improve my people skills. I was given charge of cleaning up the mess created post the privatisation of UTI Mutual fund. It was a tough task with lack of accounting controls and proper systems. But this also gave me an opportunity to work with others to improve controls and establish systems and procedure. It was at this point that I decided to get serious about pursuing MBA.

CAT (Common Admission Test) is the most widely recognised aptitude test in India and is used across multiple MBA institutes for shorlisting aspiring applicants. So I decided to appear for CAT. My parents were not very enthused by the idea but they supported my decision.

My first attempt at CAT examination did not go that well. But I decided to not give up. Also in my mind I was clear about one thing - I will do MBA from IIMs and nowhere else (IIMs are considered as the most premier institutes in India for management with IIM-A being ranked the best). Though I applied for SP Jain and MDI, in my head I was not keen to join them. As fate would have it, I managed to make it to IIM-A. I thought getting into IIM-A was an end in itself and I got relaxed. The rude shock came immediately after the 1st quiz - I scored C- (the worst score is D). I realised its not going to be an easy journey and I need to work hard if I needed to survive and succeed. It was difficult - its not an easy place for non engineers to compete against IITians who formed majority of the classmates. I was back to my old ways - work hard to compensate for your lack of intelligence. And it helped. But I wasn't aware that failure is waiting for me. And then came campus recruitment for internship. The view I got from the seniors and batchmates is that if you dont make it in day 0, you are doomed. There was so much pressure and I succumbed to it. I could not get through any of the Day 0 companies. I finally managed to join internship at Edelweiss Capital but I was still in a state of shock. I was now full of self doubts - do I have it in me to compete with others at such high level. Can hardwork really compensate for lack of intellect?

I had to re-group and rethink my strategy. During the 2nd and final year at IIM-A, I decided to focus on areas which I lacked in - improve my profile by joining IIM-A clubs (apparently extra curricular activities are now suddenly important), improve my GPA (Grade Point Average), and above all ensure that seniors know about me (seniors play an important role in deciding who gets the job). I even stood for one of the IIM-A group elections (Confluence) - I was defeated badly. I managed to secure only 36 votes against 215 votes by by the winner. But it was neverthless a useful exercise for me - it forced me to get out of my shell and pitch about myself to others. I was happy even though I failed , I atleast tried.

And then the campus  recruitment day arrived. And it seems my strategy paid off. 9 am on day 0, I was already placed. I had an offer to join as a 3rd year analyst at Lehman Brothers, New York. But I was not satisfied, I wanted an offer for Associate. I was bold enough to approach the recruiters for this and they obliged. I was one of the few who joined Lehman Brothers as Associate straight out of IIM-A.

But life was still not easy for me. My H1B visa did not go through. So I could not join the New York office. Lehman offered me to join their London office and I happily accepted. I thought the struggle is now over and I no longer need to sell myself. But I was wrong. All the new joiners were expected to meet different departments and expected to convince them to hire them. I miserably failed. I was rejected by all the teams I wanted to join and left with no choice but join a team which I was not very keen on.

Life was not easy for me at Lehman - my boss who was in Sales had no time for me. So I had no clue what was expected of me. And four months into the job, I received a call from HR saying that my performance is not up to mark and I need to see them. I was shocked. I went to meeting with HR and explained my situation. Then I confronted my boss and very bluntly told him and he has not guided me enough. But things did not improve. I had made up my mind to resign and move back to India. And then something happened - my boss resigned. I was re-assigned to another related team and I believe that was something that changed my career. My colleagues reposed faith in me. Specifically one of my colleagues, Rodney forced me to come out of my shell and encouraged me to open up.

But as it turned out Lehman Brothers was not my destination for long. It collapsed and went bankrupt, throwing an uncertain future in front of me. It was a period that brought lot of anxiety and uncertainty - but my past experiences had equipped me to deal with it better. I stayed calm. Also my Lehman team reassured me that they will take me along with them where ever they go. As events unfolded, I got an offer from Credit Suisse which I decided to pursue. I decided to leave behind my Lehman team and start all over again at Credit Suisse. I knew it was a high risk decision as the crisis meant that the key was performance - the banking sector was truly following the old adage - perform or perish. I was confident in myself and I saw Credit Suisse as an opportunity to push my career forward.

It has been 7 years now at Credit Suisse and I have enjoyed every bit of it. I continued to march forward and climb up the corporate ladder. Recently, I visited the New York Office and met a few of my colleagues there. One of them commented, "I had heard a lot about you and recently got to know about your promotion. Whenever I thought of you, I thought you will be some 40 + guy.But god, you are so young. You have done well for yourself at such a young age".  I don't know if I am content with what I have achieved till date, but his remarks made me smile.

But I think I have reached a stage again where I need to take a step back and rethink "what's next". It is always tough to answer that question when you been in the same role for a long time and its not easy to make a drastic decision to leave everything behind and make a call to do something different. I recently met up with an MD who also happens to be part of CS global People Management committee and explained him my dilemma - " I am doing the same stuff for too long and I fear that it will impact my future employability". His response - "I appreciate your concerns but you might become a victim of your own success. Because you are so good at what you do, nobody wants you to do anything else" I am not sure if thats the answer I was looking for and I am not sure if thats the culture a firm should promote.

But there is a lot happening on the personal front and therefore I have decided to hold back for sometime - I got married a few years back and I am going to be father soon. So I want to enjoy this moment and focus on my personal life. I am going to sit back and enjoy the personal joys and hold back the thoughts around "whats next" on career front. Personal life is very important for me and so when need be career can take a back seat for sometime.

In a nutshell, I am happy with the progress I have made till now. Could I have achieved more - yes sure. There is always scope to achieve more. But as I said earlier, success is as much about your own hard work as it is about the opportunities life presents to you and whether you are able to grab them. And failures are bound to come in the way of the success - but the key is to learn your lessons and never give up. Hardwork pays and compensates more than enough for lack of intellect. So set definite goals, keep working hard and never give-up - success will just be a step away.