Vivek Venkatachalam

“You have to trust your heart and gut more, and not let your brain overripen your thoughts.”

In conversation with Vivek Venkatachalam, CEO – Raychem RPG

“I have learnt that failure makes you imbibe more profound lessons than success can ever aspire to.”

1. Tell us about your background, early years, and education.

I was born and raised in Chennai, in a typical middle-class family with its characteristic style of upbringing. As the only son of my parents, I was pampered a tad bit. However, since ours was a fairly disciplined household, I had to do quite a bit of convincing for the scales to tip in my favour, for anything.

Living in a South Indian family meant that I was always nudged towards performing well in academics. Though above average in my studies, I was always drawn to, and excelled, at sports – I was an adept badminton player and also managed to play cricket quite well.

There comes a point in your life when you wonder where you’re headed, what direction makes the best sense, and how best to navigate the transition between school and college that can make or break your future. You tend to take that period a bit too seriously, and I was no different. I was contemplating whether to tap into a pure science stream or hardcore engineering.

The realities of life and making something out of it were catching up with me. My South Indian roots compelled me to run the race for IIT at the same time that I was studying to ace my Board exams. This resulted in a neither-here-nor-there situation for me. I did well in my Board exams but didn’t do well enough to make it to IIT. This was a great lesson life taught me at a rather early stage – that I should remain focused on what’s important in the immediate scheme of things and not try to kill two birds with one stone.

Eventually, I got admission into BITS-Pilani to study Information Technology. My father wasn’t very happy about it and routinely voiced it too. I eventually went with his recommendation of dropping out of IT and embarking on a Chemical Engineering course. I don’t regret any bit of it as I had a pretty great life in college and also did well there. I do think at times about where I would have been, had I continued to pursue IT. I guess I would have been in a software company, or perhaps been running my startup in the same domain, by now.

“You can’t spend your life thinking about what cabin you’ll get as a part of your next promotion or whether there will be a desk with a view.”

2. Have you always worked in the energy sector? What attracted you to this industry?

To be honest, it was all by sheer chance and the right opportunity being available at the right time. I believe that as citizens of India, we all have a responsibility towards building the nation. I did get some opportunities to study overseas and land a job thereafter, but decided to stay invested in my country. Core sectors like power, oil and gas, etc., are buzzing with projects that are easily going to be around for the next 30-50 years. That is a lifetime’s worth of aspirations for a lot of people, and enough time for me to contribute in every way that I can, and I sure intend to.

3. You were hired remotely during the pandemic. How has the entire experience been for you?

I have to admit that it was a strange experience being hired and onboarded remotely, and definitely the first for me. However, it was pulled off with unwavering efficiency, although as a victim of old habits I did miss the human touch. We’ve had a few virtual meetings in the past but I always felt that the human touch was missing there.

I still wonder, when hiring people like me, how does one take some of the larger decisions, sans the feel factor? In order to size someone up you need to meet the person. The candidate, in return, needs to get a feel of the culture by being physically present in an office that he/she is likely to occupy.

However, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it was all taken care of, from end to end. This experience strengthened my digital abilities and helped improve my adaptability with regard to the present circumstances. My abilities have been tested six ways from Sunday, every week, and I have only emerged more technologically armed than ever. I’ll share a few takeaways from the remote hiring process.

I learnt that our instincts are almost always right, so we need to pay heed to the gut. It’s easy to overthink on so many grounds about what could have happened had things been normal, but the truth is, nothing is normal right now, and the sooner we adapt to it the better it will be for our future. You have to trust your heart and gut more, and not let your brain overripen your thoughts.

As far as getting inducted was concerned, there were a lot of critical points to make note of, especially in terms of running the business. In my opinion, we mustn’t shy away from unlearning because that is how our brains will pick up and store new things. Going to the office for all these years has compelled us to think of life in a certain way and hence we take a lot of things for granted while assuming that certain experiences are here to stay. One could earlier walk into a meeting unprepared and make small talk, but now we are all strapped for time and the attention spans are comparatively low during virtual sessions.

From a (message) thrower’s perspective, you need to make your points concise and succinct. From a receiver’s perspective, you need to set your expectations and let people know about it. With house chores and kids taking up almost all our time at home, working from home is a far cry from the regimented office routine we were once accustomed to. As we reset our expectations, it will bode well to note that perfection needn’t be the priority right now. By that, I don’t mean in terms of business, but in terms of how meetings are conducted, conversations are exchanged, etc. As long as the important messages are conveyed, that should suffice.

4. What were your first thoughts on hearing about RPG's new Remote Working Policy?

RPG has taken a very pragmatic approach that is relevant to the currency of the times. It is a step in the right direction, and a pioneering one at that. Reflective of thought-leadership, courage, and humane tenets, the policy has changed management practices manifold. An organisation that can dispel the myth that 'one needs an office' is an organisation breaking free from many shackles. Imagine spending a lifetime of telling people where you go to work, where you sit, etc., and then suddenly, you don’t know what to write on your visiting card.

This sense of entitlement needs to be broken free from. You can’t spend your life thinking about what cabin you’ll get as a part of your next promotion or whether there will be a desk with a view. This mindset is very ingrained, but this watershed moment in the Indian corporate landscape will hopefully be able to uproot it. Even from a business standpoint, the pros supersede the cons by a giant leap. We will see a lot of policies with more sheen and polish coming from other companies. But they won’t be the trendsetters; they will be the followers. When they were only talking about it, RPG went right ahead with the first big step.

5. 'Hello Happiness' is our brand promise. What makes you happy at RPG?

Happiness, to the average person, is about being joyful, content, elated, etc., and these are subjective aspects. When you define happiness at work, it denotes the state of the company. What will make people happy? Winning will; to win here means to Outperform – in the market, sector and industry, against the competition, and most importantly, doing better at a personal level – and is the one thing that contributes directly to the happiness bank. Everyone likes to be a part of the winning team; it is what makes them happy at work.

The brand’s promise means we are promising that we will make the brand Outperform, which in turn will ensure security and will put a smile on everyone’s face. Happiness is a derivative of the said factors.

6. Has there been a pivotal moment in your career that has shaped you or left a lasting impression?

Several. I can’t boast of a fancy pedigree in academics, so it has to be the experiences and tricks of the trade picked up over the past 25-30 years that shaped me as professional. We largely define career by success, and perhaps the society’s definition of success at that. However, I have learnt that failure makes you imbibe more profound lessons than success can ever aspire to. As you peel the layers, you see success and failure for what they truly are.

Striking a healthy balance between success and failure in life makes you a well-rounded person, and I have carried these lessons in my toolkit wherever I have worked. In terms of leaving a lasting impression, I have decided that I will never live a life of regret or missed opportunity, not as long I make my own choices.

7. What is your mantra?

I like to stay focused as opposed to chasing multiple goals. I also believe that if I need to do something, I should choose whether to do it or not and stand by it instead of playing the victim card in case something goes wrong. Additionally, I like to pick battles that are important rather than fighting them all. Finally, I like to keep reminding myself that no matter what I achieve in life, I am nothing but a normal human being who should remain humble, value the people in his life and never take human relationships for granted.

8. Who has been a source of inspiration for you?

All my managers have played very important roles in my life. I have learnt innumerable work ethics and skills from them. I have spent time observing their leadership style and how to guide a team through difficult times. In my personal life, I have learnt the art of multitasking from the women in my life – my wife and my mother. They juggle everything so effortlessly and without dropping the ball. Additionally, the feedback that you get from them is the most genuine and unfiltered of all.

Inspiration is very contextual. One day one person will inspire you, and another day in a different situation there will be someone else to inspire you. One needn’t have cliched names to draw inspiration from. The most inspiring people are already around you in your daily life. You may or may not acknowledge them, but they are silently coaching you one way or the other.

9. What is the first thing you'd like to do once the lockdown has been lifted?

That one’s easy. I would like to visit my father in Chennai. Because of pretty obvious reasons, I haven’t been able to travel to see him as often as I would like to. Also, I want to break free from this claustrophobic existence at home by taking a vacation. I don’t know where, yet, but I know that I will need one for sure.