A new fortnightly column by marketing whiz Walter Vieira
My second interview in the 1960s was with Glaxo Laboratories. At that time, it was the largest pharmaceuticals company in India. They were selecting management trainees. Some 40 selected colleges in India were asked to send one representative candidate. Each candidate had to appear for a total of five interviews, one with each of the five directors of the company.
Any candidate who got a NO vote from any director, had to drop out of the race. I was asked by the College of Pharmacy in Gujarat (my alma mater) to represent them. Isn’t it odd? A resident of Mumbai, of Goan origin, was asked to represent Gujarat University, as the sole representative at this series of interviews. It was still a time when Indians were Indians, and state and communal affiliations had not been set on fire!
I arrived for my first interview in the series, with the purchase director, Ian McKinnon. It was a wet July day; it was raining heavily and continuously. The roads were flooded, as is usual in Mumbai even toay. I had travelled all the way from Marine Lines to Worli by a combination of bus and cab—to arrive with a wet suit, a dripping umbrella, wet socks and soggy shoes. I was going to present a very poor –‘first impression’ and I had always been told that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” But there was nothing that I could do. On the dot of 3pm, I was at Mr McKinnon’s door. To my surprise, he was there to receive me, at the door of his cabin. I was shocked. I was not used to this: especially after my past interview with Mr Singh.
He took my umbrella and kept it in a bucket where it could drip. He took my raincoat and asked whether I would like to have my wet jacket hung as well.
He asked whether I was cold and when I said that I was, he turned off the air-conditioner. Would I have tea or coffee? And he requested his secretary for two hot cups - and while waiting, making polite conversation about the weather, the rains, the floods, the city transport, till the coffee was brought in.
And then he told me that he had come to India only a year before. He briefly told me about his academic background—which included Balliol College in Oxford. And his work life before coming to India. He told me where he had travelled, his travels around India and some of his impressions of the country and the people. “Based on a limited exposure,” he was quick to add. There was insight, and there was humility. There was no intellectual arrogance. His urge to learn more and more was very transparent.
Because I was BSc BPharm, he went out of his way to tell me that he was not a 'technical' person, as I was. So we could first talk about literature and dance forms, and music and art, and places of interest and sports—both Western and Indian. He asked about my family, and my time in school and in college. My hobbies and my likes and dislikes. About my passions and the goals I have set for myself (which at that time were very vague). All the time, he kept asking questions and listening—then making notes (he asked for my permission to make notes—“because I just cannot remember everything—and it is all so interesting”). And again asking questions and again listening and making notes. He proved the truth of the old adage that God gave us two ears and only one tongue with a purpose: that we may listen twice as much as we talk.
Before I knew what had happened, I realised it was 5.45pm. We had had a conversation for nearly three hours. And it seemed so warm and friendly. The hall outside was empty. The lights had been put out. Mr McKinnon was apologetic that the interview had taken so long. But he insisted that he had enjoyed it and that he had learned a lot. He brought me my now dry jacket and helped me get into it. Then he brought me the raincoat and the umbrella. I felt so honoured and respected. This man, who had graduated from Oxford - and was now purchase director of Glaxo, made me (looking for his first job) feel like a star!
Because I had met Ian McKinnon and had fallen under his spell—I decided that if Glaxo offers me a job finally - I will take it. I did not even think about the money. Here was an opportunity to work for a renowned company and one which was staffed with gentlemen. “If there were people like Ian McKinnon at the top - who could walk with kings, without losing the common touch” ( Kipling), it would be worth working for even less than what I would have expected. For me, at 22, Mr McKinnon became a hero, a role model, someone for whom I wished well. He much later became managing director of Glaxo India, and was next posted as managing director of Glaxo, France. He died early, but he was one of the great influences on my own life!
(Walter Vieira is a Certified Management Consultant; and a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He has written 11 books – some of them best sellers – translated into Chinese and Indonesian and 3 books in collaboration with Prof. C. Northcote Parkinson of Parkinson’s Law fame. Mr Vieira has straddled the space between business and academia – and shares his vast experience with students and peers, to help make this a better world!)