Note to readers: How do corporate leaders surf life after hanging up their boots? What do they do next? What are the lessons they learned in their eventful journeys? What advice do they have for the current crop of leaders? Veterans Unpacked is a new series of interviews aimed to offer readers lessons from retired bosses on life outside the corner office.
Gurcharan Das, former CEO of FMCG giant Procter & Gamble India, may have honed his business skills while growing market share for products like Oil of Olay and Vicks, but it was when he took an unusual call to retire early, at age 50, and become a full-time writer that the next leg of his journey began.
Das, 77, is a native of Lyallpur (now in Pakistan) and the son of an engineer who was also a "mystic". He attended high school in Washington DC and subsequently got a scholarship to Harvard University where he studied economics, philosophy and politics.
He's also written around a dozen books, a compilation of plays, and shares his views on spiritualism, the principles of detachment in the corporate world, and the trick to finding happiness at work.
What have you been up to since hanging up your boots?
At age 50, I jumped out of the corporate world to become a full-time writer. My routine was to get up at 5:30 am, be at my desk by 6 am and stay at my computer till 12:30 when I went for a swim and then had lunch with my wife. I have observed that routine for 25 years. I make sure I don’t answer emails, phone calls, social media or do anything else.
Writing has been a second career and not classically what I call a retirement. I don't start with yoga or exercise or going to the gym - that would get me on some other agenda. I wanted to relentlessly be on my own agenda, and as a writer one needs to have that infinite freedom and you have to create that routine. Early in the morning, it is almost as if I am wearing my tie and suit and spit-polished shoes even though I'm not. I don’t even read the newspapers in the morning, I read that only after lunch, online.
What keeps you busy now?
What started as a trilogy has become a quartet of books based on the classical Indian goals of life and called the Puran shastras. The first volume was on Artha, the second was on Dharma and the third on Kama. The fourth will be about Moksh, in terms of spiritual liberation, much like the example of how a horse is released from its harness or a pearl from an oyster. Really relates to the spiritual diagnosis in the defective human condition; whether believers or non, we speak from the defective condition. That's what I am busy working on.
Looking back, can you tell us about three interesting events or anything that has stayed with you since?
The first was when I quit. I had been CEO of P&G India, and had started there as a trainee and had been there for 25 long years - it was called Richardson Hindustan at that time. I had been in charge of global strategic planning and one day was looking at Nielsen market share numbers that came in overnight and major brands that came in for personal care for Vicks Oil of Olay and Tide Ariel, I wondered if this was what life was all about? I was an adult male in his late 40’s and almost my own boss. There were reforms in the making as well as political changes happening and I saw that there was a big world outside. I came home discontent and my wife could see that. My boss said you should get into politics and asked me if I wanted to run China or Japan and I said no. I'd say there was a tremendous sense of existential angst that led to my choice.
The other that was earlier was when I started to write a play on colonial India called “Larins Sahib” while at erstwhile P&G in New York City. It went on to win a prize and got great reviews in The New York Times. It was my weekend job that allowed me to make a life of my own.
The third was when I was in charge of (P&G) South East Asia in 1980 and we had severe price control and union activity. It was the era of Datta Samant. Governments were squeezing companies through price control and in brainstorming we realized that Ayurveda was not price-controlled so we checked if Vicks' ingredients were in Ayurvedic texts and would qualify. Our sales guys checked it out and we were able to show them that it was made up of menthol, mint, eucalyptus and pudina and it was all natural, so we got it registered accordingly.
What do you miss most about the C-Suite?
I did enjoy the work and the people I worked with in five countries and the life of the global multinational company. The power and the authority was never a big deal and when I was running India I did have the freedom and independence and when I went to headquarters at P&G, they were very good to me and when I left they never saw me as resigning but gave me all the retirement benefits even at 50 because they genuinely saw that I was going to do my own thing. I miss the bonhomie during the Richardson Hindustan period and still keep up with a few of them but because I became a writer my world changed.
If you had to relive your corporate career, what would you do differently?
When I was 27 and designation was global product brand manager for one of the (P&G) brands and living and working in New York City and the crisis was that I had written a play and it got featured in NYT and I had a boss who walked in and said "get serious" either corporate or be a playwright - he spread the word that how could I be serious if was moonlighting as a writer? But his boss had read it and was impressed. That incident led me to think twice about quitting writing which I'm glad to say I didn’t do.
What are the changes in the corporate world that you see now that are vastly different from your time?
Clearly the digital economy, the whole knowledge economy and the service economy are moving from manufacturing to services and the role of women is greater today than in my time.
Which business leader in the current crop impresses you?
E. Sreedharan who built the Delhi Metro, Anand Mahindra and also Nandan Nilekani, and I admire his contribution to Aadhar as much as to Infosys.
How did you plan for life after retirement?
I was already a fairly seasoned writer at age 50 who had gained from 25 years of weekend writing so that allowed for the seriousness of attention afterwards.
Is there anything you would tell your younger self?
Actually I would say continue with the courage to the fellow at 25 because he had the guts to wear two hats and to be an oddball at the time. I would tell him to keep doing what he was doing.
What is your advice for the next cadre of corporate leaders?
My genuine advice is to make a life and not just make a living. Have a purpose in life. Whether in Covid or normal times, retired or working, you’ll know what to do after breakfast each morning.
This I did my way, which was wearing two hats, but one can also do it at the job. The most important thing is that the best things I learned about making a life in the corporate world was from someone who came to the company as a night guard - assistant security. He had a child-like curiosity about everything and converted his day-to-day work into play and was really the happiest person in the workplace and had such an enormous influence around everyone. Work is good when you don't care who gets the credit. He did amazing things and never wanted to take credit for them- what I learned from him is attitude is more important than skills at the job. The mistake all companies make is to recruit all for skills rather than attitude. The same mistake is attitude - ultimately great leaders are right attitude, humility, integrity - he made a life in his job. I'd give that advice.