Azim Premji turned 75 on July 24. Happy birthday, sir. Way back in 1994, I learned a valuable lesson from you which has stayed with me to this day.
It happened like this.
I had just embarked on my entrepreneurial journey. I had meetings set up in Singapore and I needed a laptop to carry with me for the demos I wanted to show. So we placed an order for Acer of which Wipro was the distributor. We had only one condition, that they be delivered in time for me to carry them on my trip.
At IRIS, the company of which I am the Founder & CEO, we were doing some crazy stuff and I was hoping to show it to some potential investors to raise funding.
Come Friday before the Saturday when I was supposed to leave, there was no sign of the laptop or the salesman who had sold it to us. I was livid. So I called Mr Premji's office in Bangalore and demanded to speak to his secretary. Some guy who identified himself as the security guard on duty, picked up the phone and told me that the secretary was not available. I became even more angry. I stepped up my demand a notch and asked him to put me through to Mr Premji. "Who's calling," the chap asked. "Tell him it is an irate customer," I told the chap. After a short wait which to me seemed interminable, someone else came on the line." How may I help you," the voice asked.
"Now who's this," I must have screamed into the phone. "This is Azim Premji," I should have recognised the voice from the couple of previous occasions I had met him when I was a journalist. My voice froze. I started stuttering, I had not expected this. I told him that I was looking for his secretary. "I don't know where my secretary is but perhaps you could tell me what this is about,: he said. So told him. He apologised profusely, leaving me totally embarrassed. "I can imagine what you must be going through," he said, as we concluded our conversation. The bottomline was that there was nothing that he could do in the limited time that was available.
As it turned out, the Singapore trip was a washout. In none of my meetings could people relate to what I was trying to talk to them about. A demo would not just have helped, it was critical.
It was on the flight back as I was trying to find if there was anything good that had come from the trip, that it struck me that Wipro must be amazing organisation for the security guard to not think twice of putting the call through to the boss. The guard clearly used his intelligence to decide that the call could be important to his boss. Clearly, he was not scared of the consequences. Anybody else could have just taken my number and told me that he would have the secretary call me back. But he didn't. It is clearly a reflection of how Mr Premji must be treating his subordinates, I concluded. In hierarchy bound Indian society, this was stunning.
I forgot about my Singapore meetings. I had learned a valuable lesson from Mr Premji for me to internalise. I knew the kind of organisation that we had to create here at IRIS. If any of my colleagues at IRIS believe that we have created a different kind of organisation, they should thank Mr Premji for the lesson that he taught me.