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Speaking Success with Smita Tharoor!

22 Feb 2017

Smita has over 20 years experience within corporate, regional and international frameworks and in large voluntary, statutory, health and private sector organisations. She has considerable experience in embedding a Coaching culture into organisations and in providing turn-around solutions for training & development companies in their fledgling state. 

Read more about Smita Tharoor in our exclusive interview.

Sreejith: The association of Tharoor family with the brand Amul is well known. Dr Shashi in one of his articles said about both his sisters getting to feature in Amul posters. And Smita, you were startled to discover a picture of your baby self still displayed on the wall of a rural provision shop in some dusty forgotten corner of the country? What is the ‘Amul’ story and your memories?

Smita: My father knew the head of the ad agency (ASP) who was scouring the country for a baby to be the face of Amul so when Sylvester da Cunha (the head) realised that my father had a baby of similar age, he asked to see the baby. That was my sister, Shobha and she became the first ever Amul baby. Eighteen months later they wanted another baby – my claim to fame! Naturally I have no memory of the photo shoot or anything about my first modelling venture. I was all of 9 months. But when I was growing up in Calcutta, I was thrilled to find that our local chemist, Bhopee and Co had “The Amul Baby” picture on the wall. Going to pick up medicines for the family was a chore that I loved to do. Coincidentally, my mother, sister and I went to the very same chemist in December 2016. They remembered the photograph but said they no longer had space on the wall for it.

Sreejith: Growing up with Shashi and Shobha in Bombay, what are the childhood memories you cherish?

Smita: We moved to Calcutta from Bombay when I was 6 so my childhood memories with my siblings are more in Calcutta. My brother, being the eldest always took on the role of tutor, guide and entertainer. Unusually for those days, the flat we lived in Calcutta had a bathtub. I vividly remember sharing a bath with my siblings. My brother would pretend we were on a ship. He was the captain of the ship and my sister was the lookout for any passing icebergs while I (being the youngest) was a mere passenger. The captain of the ship would take us to exotic places and tell us stories about these countries.  This was a fantastic way for a 6-year-old to learn geography!

Sreejith: Why a venture in training and development? Why Tharoor Associates?

Smita: My career has always been in training & development. Having the power to influence change in an individual is a huge privilege. I find it hugely rewarding that I can interact with others, share stories and have an impact on their work ethics. The more senior you get in an organisation, the less you do the job you originally applied for. So, I started my own company. 

Tharoor because it is the name my father gave me whom I admired and from whom I have learned a lot. It was his liberal, non- judgmental, generous attitude towards life that I aspire to emulate and that I work on embedding in any training session I deliver. And Associates because I have some wonderful talented associates who support me when necessary.

Sreejith: Over 20 years of experience in various sectors, what is your aspiration as a training professional?

Smita: Sounds cheesy but that I can genuinely affect at least one person in the room who will introspect and make change. I aspire to continue to do what I do, mutually learn, discuss and grow. Working with junior & middle managers or students is wonderful because they are the future. If they can adjust their working style due to a session that I have delivered, we have the potential of successful leaders.

Sreejith: I understand you have had a close association with school and their management. What is it that the Indian Education System is lacking? What do we do about it?

Smita: This is a tough question as it’s not all black and white. We have a lot of people in India and the competition to get to the top is very hard so I understand why there is an “all work and no play culture” in schools. But equally, I strongly feel that if a child is encouraged to do what he/she wants to do, we would have a generation of young people who are more rounded, confident and far better able to fit into the global economy. Where has all the wonderful creativity that India was once known for gone? It would be great if we could try and meet in the middle and encourage creativity as an essential rather than an added-on subject.

Sreejith: Tell us something about Dr Shashi Tharoor that we don’t know about as a person. How has he influenced you in moulding your personality?

Smita: I’ve already mentioned my geography lessons aged 6. My brother has always been a high achiever and did things easily and far earlier than anyone else I know. I hugely admired him and was always trying to emulate him. Acting, debating and elocution were skills that I wanted to have because my brother was so good at them. Fortunately, I loved all three and it’s not surprising that my profession now involves public speaking. I wonder if things would have been different if my brothers’ influence wasn’t there. My brother is an immensely patient and humble person. As one becomes more successful in life, it is very important to value these traits.

Sreejith: Could you tell us a bit of Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and its activities?

Smita: The Institute of Leadership & Management is a professional membership body for leaders and managers around the world. Its mission is to inspire great leadership – everywhere. ILM combines industry-leading qualifications and specialist member services. It carries out research into leadership and management in practice, providing insights for managers and leaders and publishing findings in white papers, research reports and journals. The institute takes a collaborative approach, preferring to work with like-minded individuals and organisations in defining research topics and undertaking research activity. It offers a wide range of learning resources to support the continuous professional development of leaders and managers in a variety of organisations and settings.

Sreejith: How important is it for any individual to be conscious of oneself and their unconscious bias?

Smita: This is like asking how important is to brush your teeth every morning. It is fundamentally who you are. Being self-aware, introspecting and challenging yourself is part of growing and learning as a person. If you don’t brush your teeth every day, sooner or later your teeth will get cavities, your teeth will fall out, you will get gum disease and you will need a lot of oral surgery. Instead of waiting for an emergency when your own lack of insight has had catastrophic results, try and work on being more self-aware. Be aware that your stories define you – some more negatively than others. Challenge those biases and try to address new situations without bringing in any of your “baggage”. The result is improved relationships at any level, whether it’s family, friends or colleagues.

Sreejith: In your Asian Voice interview, your husband Mr Seamus Murphy is your constant support. Tell us a bit about your 3 sons, family times and leisure activities.

Smita: Yes, Seamus is certainly my rock. We are both self-employed and I remember discussing the possibility of giving up my salaried job for a life with no guaranteed income. Rather than dissuade me, he supported me. He is very creative (he’s a photographer and film maker) and encourages all of us to be creative and different. My 3 sons are also my strength and support. I am very lucky with the men in my life. One is a journalist; the second is in creative advertising. The youngest is still figuring out what he wants to do – he is in his final year of school. They have very different personalities and constantly challenge and surprise me. And I’m proud to say that all of them are kind, gentle, generous and feminists.

Scrabble is a favourite family leisure activity. It’s what we played as a family growing up in Calcutta and what we often do on a cold rainy day in London. We also love the theatre, cinema, and art galleries and fortunately we live in one of the best cities in the world to avail of that.

Sreejith: Your job demands you to be a great listener, how important are human stories?

Smita: Your stories are what define you. It’s the human stories that will unconsciously influence you in how and what you do at work. I have had the privilege of hearing such wonderful simple stories. I remember a senior executive suddenly realising that he had wanted a wife who doesn’t work because his mother always worked when he was a child. He has two adult daughters and it was only through sharing these human stories that he knew that he needed to talk to his daughters and explain his reasons so that they didn’t see him as anti-feminist or discouraging of career women. Think about how that realisation would impact on him as a leader and role model in his company.

Sreejith: Your advice as an expert to the young entrepreneurs and start-up founders in India on Strategy & Leadership culture?

Smita: Be curious. Do not be arrogant or laid back. Be introspective, challenge yourself, engage in honest conversations at all hierarchical levels and recognise that you will learn new skills at the strangest of environments and when you least expect it.

Sreejith: The mighty economies struggling, political unrest across borders, cry for help from various ends, refugee crisis, where do you think the world is heading?

Smita: I am writing this after having watched the new president of the USA take office. His speech clearly marked that he will rule with a nationalistic approach of governance. This afternoon, I marched in the Women’s March in London that was showing solidarity against the change in the US. In many countries around the world, leaders are promoting an insular, fundamentalist attitude where there is only one way of seeing things. This promotes intolerance. Creativity is often muzzled. Bias is on the increase. This year will see some European countries having their elections, which could result in further jingoism. Brexit will isolate the UK further. It’s a worrying world we live in.

Having said that life is cyclical. Today the world is in crisis and looking back on history this period will be deemed as the dark ages. But after the dark, comes the light so I know that there is always light around the corner and it is up to us to be positive and stick to our values and ethos than follow the negative path that is increasingly on the rise around the world. My niece, who lives in America recently wrote to say maybe if we had better fantasies we wouldn't be living in this nightmare. so, we need to read, MAKE, keep doing what we do with seriousness and integrity.”  Wise words.

Sreejith: The world is thriving on a hectic schedule, what are we missing though we call it ‘life’? Are we living it?

Smita: I think we are living it but it’s certainly more hectic today than 30 years ago. That’s normal. Our parents would have said the same of their lives in comparison to 30 years before they were adults. Innovation and change is bound to happen and we should embrace it. But it’s your attitude on how you live that life that will tell you if you are “living” it or not. The advice from my niece applies here too.

Sreejith: How important is training & development for an organisation?

Smita: Essential. If you look at any successful organisation, you will find the ethos of the company is the culture of people management. Yet sadly the training budget is the first to be axed when there is a crisis – it’s very short sighted. Happy, valued people make a successful company and offering them training and development is an obvious way of valuing them.

Sreejith: Your thoughts on and the online magazine

Smita: I think it’s an excellent idea. Its taking the best of both worlds and offering online training as well as face to face traditional workshops. It’s also good to see that you have a certification process.

The magazine is great. Lots of very different opinions and essays. I noticed an article by Krishnan Raman who talks of curiosity and how he learns the importance of this from his grandson. I’ve copied a small section from it below. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be curious and eager like his grandson?

Also, our desire for curiosity sometimes are influenced by our own colleagues by remarking, ``Don’t do that?’’, Don’t question your superiors?’’, ``Mind your own work?’’ and so on. Such negative attitude often stops people from investigating further.” 

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