A Reason for Rhyme
TAQ in conversation with Ajay MK –
Poet/Author and EVP Human Resources at Colgate Palmolive
At TAQ, we are always curious about the interaction between the arts and business. They are typically perceived as very different, even opposite worlds. One is about defined goals and efficiency. The other is about exploration and expression. Yet, some people have a deep practice in both and we are interested to understand the confluence. In that context, we met with Ajay MK, Executive Vice President – Human Resources for India and South Asia at Colgate. While Ajay spends his days thinking about people strategy and talent development, he says he defines himself first as a poet. He shared his perspectives on how the arts have informed his work in the corporate space and vice versa. As a psychologist, his conversation is peppered with self-insight and metaphors, weaving through questions about identity, leadership styles and creativity at work. What emerges is the conscious choice to inhabit multiple worlds and the richness of perspective it has brought to his work.
Here are some excerpts.
On having a vantage point
What is it like having a view into two different worlds (the artistic and the business world)?
Firstly, it helps me see myself as an outsider – and I love that vantage point. It energizes me. I try to make the marginal mainstream in business – like introversion. Introversion in the US is hugely marginalized. Work can demand an extroverted kind of a mould from everyone. In modern organizations also we veer towards the numerical and analytical. And I try to give the non-numercial its rightful place too.
And organizations are now realizing that human-centric qualities are a source of competitive advantage. I am much more spontaneous than planned. My thinking is artistic, intuitive and fluid. Inhabiting two worlds helps me see possibilities. This is how I add value in a management team, or to my HR team, I think. Artists see stuff that others may not have seen because of their eccentric take on things.
Where does this fluid point of view give you an edge?
In OD applications, culture change, whenever there is a challenge to understand behaviour, and whenever I need to facilitate a conversation. I can see nuances, not just what people are saying or thinking, but also what they feel. I have that antennae out and am very oriented to pick up that pulse. The intuitive muscle is well exercised in such situations.
This style engenders a lot of trust. People feel comfortable because they sense you are not in the game only for a promotion, or extrinsic rewards. Your relationship with silence is positive; in one-on-one sessions, you are not forcing the words to flow. You can wait and listen a lot more deeply.
My work in poetry also helps greatly with articulation. Poetry gives you the skill of condensation when you want to and elaboration when you want to. You understand that words can go beyond conveying meaning and can create feeling tones. Four different synonyms can create four different meanings, and as a poet, you are sensitive to how words influence feelings. And you get really good at capturing that in conversations, or while listening to what’s unsaid.
In what way does this emergent, fluid point of view become a challenge at work?
It is difficult for me to restrict myself to structure, or to the predictable, in conversations – e.g. about careers, where people want ready answers – my answer would be to discover. I am not great at supplying readymade answers. People sometimes come to me saying he is an expert, and they want some clear formula. But I cannot give a formula because actually I am not sure myself. If you ask me why I succeeded in my career, it may be things I did or maybe I am just lucky that things came together the way they did.
I am inconvenient if you need me to unconditionally align with you because I am not motivated by extrinsic rewards as much ever since I embraced my artistic self. So I am not easy to manage or motivate. I am oriented towards meaning and purpose, so am at higher risk of alienation in the corporate world. But luckily both the organizations that I have been a part of have worked out for me. I had great bosses and a very supportive environment, for which I am grateful.
By and large, the advantages (of this fluid intuitive vantage point) vastly outweigh the disadvantages in HR leadership.
When did you discover your passion for poetry? When did you decide to enter the corporate world? How did this dual identity evolve?
I used to do a lot of self-talk as a child. I would make up stories and talk to myself…and now when I read about other writers, I know this is very common. You have a flirtation with solitude; you get to create this magical world that is almost a counter-balance to the real world. It made me feel very odd when I was 11/12 years old…I didn’t know anyone else who was like that.
I was told to grow out of some of who I was. I was told that shyness is not good, dreaminess is not good, the poetic impulse is not good (in the practical world). There was a lot of pressure I put on myself – gender pressure, the pressure for survival, financial insecurity of a middle class family. When I was 25, immediately after my MBA, I thought that the world of art, business & science were all different, and I had lot of biases and stereotypes about each of them. Each one was a different box in my head, and I felt they could never be reconciled. I had decided to brace myself for 10 years or so in the business world and somehow become more secure financially. And I would have given up; that was the plan. If by 30 I was not published I might have given up writing too!
I started calling myself a poet when I was 26 or 27 years old. That needed external validation. After I got published in 2-3 journals, that is when I started thinking of myself as a poet, believing I could write. Then later I started thinking that perhaps a poet can be successful in the corporate world too and now to a point where I believe that being a poet is an advantage in the corporate world!
I am now in a happy space where my work is feeding my curiosity, poetry is helping me be more effective at work (though that is not why I started writing poetry; this is a happy by-product). My psychology background is also helping me at work. All the three – poetry, psychology & management – are coming together and all the three boxes are feeding each other.
On being a leader
How would you describe your leadership style?
I think my team will say these about me: he provokes us to consider new ways of seeing & doing things, that he demands quite a bit in terms of impact he wants to create, that he can be rather strange & unconventional in his methods, and that he is tuned to our feelings.
I am always nudging my team, pushing them towards healthy discomfort essential for growth. For some people that could be draining, until they get used to it. But mostly, I enjoy making that which is marginal mainstream and be inclusive. Being an introvert myself, and someone who sees things differently, I am able to value that in others who are different too. There are three or four people who are like me, and this style works for them, and gives them confidence. I am able to create that space for people.
I deal with one kind of people in the corporate world and a whole different kind of people in the poetry world. For example, I attended a poetry festival in Serbia where I met so many poets and people of different sorts. This kind of exposure helps me see possibilities in people and celebrate differences among people.
On accessing intuition
What underlies your creativity? How does that show up in the work context?
Sometimes I feel I am only accessing something which comes from a part of me that I normally am not conscious about. I try to fan that acute sensitivity. I always encourage and tune into unconscious processes; like paying attention to dreams. Writing poetry is like free association, letting the words tumble out, and not worrying about meaning. So it is a kind of loosening which I am able to do that I cannot do otherwise in my life. It lets me be original.
And its play! If I am jaded by words, I resort to do some painting. And it seems to supplement my writing. It has made me more comfortable using play in every other domain, including corporate work. There is a huge element of play even in my corporate life, in the way I lead teams.
Play at work is experimentation. Even in the Colgate HR context, my reputation is of someone who tries to pioneer. Recently, I tried teaching employees CBRT (Compassion-Based Resilience Training – a method advocated by Dr. Joe Loizzo. Ajay has started a series of contemplative practice classes at Colgate based on this method, as an experiment). Secondly, as I lead my teams, the experience is always of trying to discover something.
On discipline and time management
How do you find time to balance your different interests? How do you keep your poetry going
alongside your career in HR?
Every morning I give myself about an hour, typically between 5-6 am which is when I am very productive (in terms of creativity). The process of writing poetry is very different than fiction. Fiction has more control, I can determine what I want to write and then write. In poetry, my role is about just being there. Then the initial idea emerges and I have to not lose it. So I tell myself 5-6 is the window for creativity. If something drops I will capture it. If not I will work on my novel.
Apart from this, I try to write on weekends, and take 2-3 breaks a year of 3-4 days each. I do that
also for change of scenery. It helps my imagination.
Ajay attributes a lot of his journey to good luck.
“Career is not just about your talent and skill. It is also about randomness and who you run into. I remember Mr Patwardhan (ex-HR director, Asian Paints), with whom I used to share my poetry when I was a Management Trainee, tell me once: ‘This (writing) is different and it will help you (in career)’.”
But in his story what emerges is the conscious choice to inhabit three different worlds at once – the world of poetry, the world of psychology, and the world of business. Seeing things in metaphor, he has grown comfortable and adept at harnessing perspective, skills, and inspiration in one world and taking it into the other. Truly a leader with the arts quotient!
“I slow down these mysteries
surrounding me this day,
bits and pieces of wonder stuck here
in these crevices, these woods,
these last outposts of where I belong.”
———– From ‘Leaves’ in Sweetness of Salt, 2007
Ajay MK leads HR for South Asia at Colgate. He has lived and worked in three countries: India, United States & Malaysia. He has led complex change projects in the US, Mexico, Europe, Southeast Asia and India in his 17+ years at Colgate. Prior to Colgate, he worked at Asian Paints. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, a M.A in Psychology and a PGD PM&IR from XLRI, Jamshedpur. Ajay has published three books of poems (Clawing into Water’s Skin, 2015; Sweetness of Salt, 2007; and Facsimile of Beliefs, 2005) and one book of short stories (Drizzle of Yesteryears, 2006).