Wednesday, June 27, 2012

5 bitter business lessons Rajat Gupta taught me

by Alok Rodinhood Kejriwal

I heard Rajat Gupta speak as a keynote at the Harvard Business School (HBS) in March 2010. HBS had invited a clutch of Indian entrepreneurs to discuss entrepreneurship in India. And so, why was Rajat Gupta there? Well, he was the most illustrious Indian in the United States!

If you were present at the event, correct me if I am wrong, but I heard Rajat Gupta with a cracked voice. I heard more philosophy than gyaan. I heard the voice of regret ring out loud. On that particular day, I just assumed that he must've had a bad day. But today I am much wiser.

These are the five bitter lessons I have learnt from the punishing saga of Rajat Gupta, ending in his indictment for insider trading in the courts of New York.

1. If you hang out with criminals, you become one

Someone I know was once arrested for economic fraud in India. He spent a couple of days locked up. When I met him, he said, "Alok, in two days in a white collar jail cell, I met the most seasoned criminals. They revealed various business ideas of how to cheat and deceive people. They offered to partner me to execute their plan. My challenge was not dealing with the mental torture of being locked up, but of preventing those criminal ideas from manifesting themselves in my mind."

Rajat Gupta 'hung out' with Rajaratnam. Now, a man like Rajat Gupta, who has probably shaken as many hands as Obama has, knows how to 'read' people and quickly ascertain what they do. Yet he chose to associate with Rajaratnam. And sure enough, Rajaratnam brought him down.

Lesson: do not associate with even borderline crooks. You will be transformed - from an entrepreneur to a fraud-preneur.

2. Some things are taught by the conscience, not mummy & papa

I recently signed up on a couple of websites to offer 'over-the-phone' consultancy to venture funds, investors, etc. who like to talk to professionals and entrepreneurs to understand specific domain issues and insights.

While registering myself, the online form made me take 'tests' to make sure I understood what ethics and code of conduct meant.

A question asked, "If a company you are doing diligence on offers to fly you first class to Las Vegas and back to help you 'relax' from your efforts, will you accept?" Now, when confronted by a question like this, I don't need to scratch my head and wonder, "What did papa teach me?" Isn't it obvious that the answer is a DEAD 'NO'?

So, did Rajat Gupta need special guidance to understand that after a board meeting of a company in which you hear private, confidential information, you DON'T call up strangers and tell them what you heard? Hey! You don't even call up your wife and tell her!

Was Rajat Gupta's conscience eating a pretzel on the streets of New York when he called Rajaratnam minutes after a secret Goldman Sachs' board meeting and spilled all the information to him?

Lesson: be guided by your conscience always. It will never lie to you. Do not believe anyone else.

3. Denial is a demonstration of vanity

The Rajat Gupta case and the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky case bear a strong resemblance. Both defendants were powerful, men of the world, having 'been there, done that, and seen it all'. When they were cornered into a situation that was clearly brought unto themselves, they went into what I call a 'synthetic denial'. Both men used technical, obtuse, clinical language and terms to describe what they had done as being "incorrect, but not illegal". Both insisted on making a public spectacle of themselves despite being so obviously in the wrong. Men like these have Himalayan-sized egos. Their false vanity deceives even themselves!

From what I read, Rajat Gutpa was offered a fine, a rap and no jail term by the SEC if he would have admitted to insider trading. But he chose not to accept and went on to defend his wrong!

Lesson: don't be in denial. Do not let your ego deceive you. We all make mistakes. Once discovered, correct it and redeem yourself as fast as you can!

4. When you are wrong, you are alone

As the Rajat Gupta prosecution shows, none of his best friends, associates or colleagues tried to save him or create a safety net for him. Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs publicly castigated Rajat Gupta about his conduct while serving as a board member of Goldman Sachs. From what I understood, no one supported Rajat Gupta other than his family members. He was all alone.

Lesson: the old adage that 'friends and well wishers will come to my rescue when I am trouble' is bunk. No one will come. Save yourself, by yourself.

5. Greed is good, but it's not God

I am a huge fan of Gordon Gekko (from Wall Street 1). Not for his morals, but for his ambition. Personally, I believe that the motivation to achieve a lot is a great way to create important value for yourself and for society. But I do not believe that greed is God!

Rajat Gupta had everything. He had achieved so much that he could've had statues of himself in Mumbai and New York, but he wanted more. His greed was not good; it became his God.

For some strange reason, the more successful people become, the more insecure they become about proving their capabilities, their self worth and their value! This is a disease of the rich.

Lesson: be greedy, but be good. That's what matters.

(The writer is a digital entrepreneur and blogs at http://therodinhoods.com)

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