Born into a middle-class household in Kerala, RamG Vallath had a successful corporate career. At 34, he was the youngest COO at Airtel and a director at Dell and HP until he was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder that affected his nerves and gradually weakened his muscles. Over the next ten years, while grappling with his deteriorating health, he continued to hold tough and complex jobs, spreading cheer and humor wherever he went. He did manage to find a potential cure for this otherwise incurable disorder and underwent a clinical trial in Chicago. He continues to deliver his talk ‘Find Your Own Oops in Life’ to thousands of corporate employees with the central message – hang in there with a smile when adversity hits you; there will be a sunny day soon. Excerpts from one such talk at Easy Library in Bengaluru recently
Benefit of Table Next to Secretary
Right from my college days I learnt that unless you push yourself outside your comfort zone you will never grow as a person. You will always be sitting there and thinking that your fish curry and rice is the best.
I had joined Compaq as a regional manager for the South. It was many years after IIT and XLRI. In Compaq there were two divisions, three of us were handling one division and 27 were handling the other division. So those guys were the big bullies and we were the small guys. That division was commercial desktop division which would sell desktops to companies. We were the consumer desktop guys and were starting consumer PCs in India. I joined at a fantastic salary hike from Titan and I got a nice desk at Compaq.
Soon somebody joined the other division and they chucked me out to a table next to the secretary in the office. There were a bunch of outsourced employees whose job was to get orders from distributors. One thing good that happened to me was all the socialist ‘funda’ I had got in my life (came back) – I had no ego or chips on my shoulder. I used to treat everybody on the same level, be it manager, secretary or president. So I got very friendly with the auto processing people.
Every month end there would be huge pressure to do the targets. Interestingly, both commercial guys and we shared the same distributor. The distributors would be billed against credit, as the credit was limited, the first orders that logged in would get credit clearance. Because I was friendly with the auto processing people, my order would go in first. Month-on-month my target used to be 100 to 110% when the other guys would be fuming and sweating. Another huge lesson in life, every so called disadvantage can be converted into a huge advantage. That lesson has helped me in all the tough times I have had in life after that.
Don’t Push Problems Under the Carpet
The next big lesson happened when I joined Airtel as general manager sales and marketing into a new circle. It was in 2004 when Airtel was launching 7 new circles. There was a new technology called 1800 megahertz. All the other networks were on 900 megahertz. We were told that this is the best technology and we can get a lot of customers.
We started putting up showrooms across Tamil Nadu. I put out about 30 showrooms and each of the franchisees had invested Rs. 30-40 lakhs. We told them we had to get 100,000 connections in three months. Aircel had only 180,000 connections in 3-4 years. But we were very arrogant and proud that we could do this. 100,000 in 100 days was our target.
However, in the first 30 days we could do only 300 numbers and then the disaster really started. Customers were starting to return the SIM as there was poor coverage; the problem with the 1800 network was it did not have penetration inside buildings. The people who had invested money started bleeding and there was no cash flow coming in. I was the one who had promised them a pot of gold. I was nervous but told myself that the best thing is to face the problem head on because, if you don’t do that, it will become a bigger problem. So I called for a meeting of all distributors, despite fearing my head.
For the first two hours I got the choicest words in Tamil. But I owned up to all the problems we had created. At the end they started listening to me and we charted out individual recovery paths. At the end of a year almost everyone turned profitable because we were flexible and worked together for a solution. Never brush a problem under the carpet. If you do, invariably, it will become too much to handle, face it head on.
Because of this disaster, there was a huge outstanding, bad debt and my boss who was COO was sidelined and put into a different role. So I became de facto the senior most in this circle. I had two choices – either to take the role or stretch outside my job limits and do other things. I had an inclination that’s what I need to do; I started helping customer service, IT, delivery, and networking. That’s when I realized the most important thing to do in a job is to remember that there are no boundaries; they are limited only by your imagination. Only question is to ask how I can add value to this organization.
When I did that all the potential promotions came my way. I became the youngest COO in telecom at 34 across all operating competitors even till today. Don’t look at your own KRA so desperately but do what is right for the organization, you will grow financially, in terms of knowledge, abilities and skill sets.
When the Disease Struck
Life was great and I said at 45 I will be Fortune 500 company CEO. That was my target, I was all set for it, and I could easily do it. But that’s when fate decides to throw googlies at you. For me, it came in a funny kind of physical disorder, my hands would shake or I would feel I was going to fall when I climbed down stairs. None of the doctors could figure out the problem. Slowly everything was becoming a problem; my fingers lost their flexibility. I thought it was because of inactivity. The only way I could deal with this problem is take it head on.
I enrolled in a gym; I would work out for 1 ½ hours and after that my body would be trembling. I moved jobs thinking because of stress but the problem continued. I was in HP, director operations and I had a viral fever and it spiked up this condition. I was completely bed ridden, so it was a bunch of problems together. Luckily, the doctors diagnosed it as Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP); it’s an auto immune disorder. The nerves were under attack and they were losing the nerve coating which conducts electricity from brain impulses to the muscles. Since there were no impulses going to the muscles, muscles were losing traction and when you don’t use the muscles for sometime the muscles just fade away.
There was treatment available called IVIG, it’s an intravenous infusion and at the end of that I started feeling better. It cost me Rs. 6 lakhs and after that I got out of bed and desperately started building my muscles. Life was back and felt on top of the world. But that lasted 45 days, and at the end of 45 days, the whole problem came back with a bang. The effect of IVIG does not last for a long time and you need to keep taking it.
I had to go for the next level of treatment and that was steroids. Steroids are killers, it has a very debilitating effect, and I started putting on weight and felt bloated. Your sight also gets affected because of steroids; I had to have a cataract operation. Though my body continued to become worse I still did not give up and would still walk a kilometer every day which would take me 25 minutes. I was determined that I would find a solution, and come what may; I am not going to let my spirits down. I knew that the only way to handle something like this was to use your sense of humor. I would tell my kids completely wacky stories. I loved alien stories and they would roll around laughing when they laughed, I would feel better. Humor is something that virtually has a positive virtuous cycle. When the going gets tough, the tough get humorous.
I also learnt that life is not fair, to expect life to be fair just because you are nice to everybody, it’s like expecting life to be fair is like expecting a tiger not to eat you just because you don’t eat tigers. But once you realize that life is not fair then the best thing happens, you stop mourning about your fate. Then you realize the only way to handle a tough situation is to accept reality exactly as it is. Once you accept that reality then all you will do is to find a solution instead of mourning about what would have been. That’s exactly what I did, I went looking for solutions.
I tried yoga and ayurveda. Yoga gave me a lot of relief and I kept on searching the internet for solutions. I found a clinical trial happening in the US. The doctor was an amazing guy; he had treated 1000 odd patients who had given up hope in life. All auto immune diseases like MS, lupus, the success rate was around 80% and mortality was a couple of percentage too.
Chicago was a great place and we were in the middle of the Magnificent Mile, it’s got everything in Chicago. The hospital was like a 5 star hotel and I had the room which was overlooking the Play Boy building which was the greatest thing to happen. The treatment was they would give 5-6 days of chemo and knock down the body completely; the immune system will go to zero. Apart from the chemo there was a rabbit and rat extract! At any point of time, 5-6 bottles connected to me through a mainline which was going to my jugular. They had taken my stem cells earlier and after the treatment put it back into the body and then waited to see if the body recovered. It’s like rebooting the body. I started recovering and I decided that this time I am not going to stop at anything and get myself completely well.
Writing a Wacky Novel
I came back and got into an exercise regimen and then I got this idea to write a totally wacky science fiction book. The problem was I could not write or use my fingers. I discovered Dragon Soft and I could dictate and it would write for me. In three months time I finished my first book. The book was completely wacky and out of the world, it was about an alien that had come to save humanity from destruction. I was on a high throughout while writing the book.
I started teaching kids science using this book; it’s an amazing way to teach. The thing that gives you the most high in life is when you can touch people’s life positively. Today my aim in life is to touch a million lives. I also want to write funny science books for kids
My dream, 45 years CEO of a fortune 500 company is not there but there are so many other things one can do in life. Life is full of so many opportunities I work at Azim Premji Foundation as a consultant, I work in a start up , and I want to become a You Tuber some day.
Few Life Rules I Set for Myself
Never ever look at what could have been; the only thing that will bring you is a lot of waste of time. Focus on current and find solutions from the present and that will keep you motivated and high throughout your life.
The buck always stops with you. Never pass the buck to anybody else because the only person who can do anything for you is yourself. The only person who can make you happy in life is yourself. A physical disability is a fact but happiness or unhappiness because of that is a state of mind and you can decide you want to be happy about it, take it in your stride and still touch people positively or you can mourn. That’s the path I have taken, I will never let negativity come into my life.
If you keep resentment about somebody else it’s like drinking poison and hoping that the other person might die. He doesn’t, the only thing it affects is yourself.
I am the master of my faith; I am the captain of my soul.
Remember all of us are masters of our fate, we can decide how to take life on and I choose to do it positively!