Kabir Sehgal: An interview by Bob Morris


SehgalKabir Sehgal was a vice president in emerging market equities at J. P. Morgan. A Grammy-winning producer, he has performed with Grammy-winning musicians as a jazz bassist. He co-founded an arts organization which merged with the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the London School of Economics. And he’s a fan of the Atlanta Braves. He is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us, Walk in My Shoes: Conversations between a Civil Rights Legend and his Godson on the Journey Ahead (with Andrew Young), A Bucket of Blessings (co-authored with Surishtha Sehgal), The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk, and Jazzocracy: Jazz, Democracy, and the Creation of a New American Mythology.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Kabir.

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Morris: Before discussing Coined, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Sehgal: My father. He left India at a young age and moved to the United Kingdom where he swept floors. He saved up enough money and attended university in the United States. He embodies the American dream, and I am still amazed with his tenacity, courage, and resiliency.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Sehgal: Ambassador Andrew Young or “Uncle Andy.” After Hurricane Katrina, I wanted to go back to New Orleans to help musicians return to the city. But Uncle Andy advised me, “If you want to help people, go work at an investment bank.” His contrarian advice opened my eyes to the importance of capital. “Learn how to make some money before you give it away.” I learned that you can bring about good in the world especially if you have a paycheck.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Sehgal: During graduate school, I started a company with my friend in India. It was doing well, but we ran out of money, so I took a job writing computer code at J.P. Morgan, and sent my pay checks to cover the growing costs of the startup. But ultimately, our company failed, and I remained at J.P. Morgan. I never wanted to work in finance, but I was there, and then the 2008 financial credit crisis began, and I thought that I had an up-close view of what was happening. Thus began my career in global capital markets.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Sehgal: At every level of school, I’ve tried to write. In elementary school, I helped start my class newspaper. I wrote in high school. I wrote columns in my college newspaper. And in graduate school, I helped start a student academic journal. Also, I made sure to take classes where I could become a better writer and a more disciplined thinker. So much of business boils down to communicating clearly and effectively, and the writing courses and English teachers taught me a lot along the way. Yet, I still have a long way to go in terms of writing.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Sehgal: That it’s OK not to know things. When the global financial crisis began, I didn’t know that much about capital markets: stocks, bonds, and currencies. And then I realized that many people who work in banking, even those who’ve been at it for many years, aren’t masters of their craft – because there’s just so much to know when it comes to the market. It’s OK to say I don’t know. Realizing this earlier in my career would have put me more at ease.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Sehgal: It’s a Wonderful Life. It illustrates that if you treat your customers with respect, they will recognize you and even help when you’re most in need.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Sehgal: Albert Murray’s The Omni-Americans because it discusses how you have to draw upon everyone’s creativity. America is a mash-up of cultures and traditions, and great businesses know how to tap the strengths of all their employees, whatever their background may be. As for best business related book: Built to Last by Jim Collins & Jerry Porras. I read the book in middle school because I was fascinated by corporate America and how CEOs build successful companies. The book emphasizes the importance of core values – it’s important for your business to stand for something, and for your employees to believe in something.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Sehgal: That says it all. The message is “begin with where you are.” Everyone is looking to get ahead, but you get ahead by doing well at the things that are immediately in front of you. In this case, start with the people around you, learn from them, and invest in them.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.”

Sehgal: As jazz trumpeter Miles Davis observed, it’s not the notes, but the spaces between the notes that matter. Knowing what not to play as well as the timing of what to play give definition to your performance.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Sehgal: Reminds me of Max Planck’s “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

Morris: From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Sehgal: Necessity is the mother of invention.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Sehgal: You need a dream and a deadline.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Sehgal: Pick your battles. Choose wisely.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Sehgal: Most great companies are run from the bottom up: CEOs who have come up through the ranks understand that it’s important for all employees to feel empowered and for all managers to truly own their P&L. The more a CEO can empower his direct reports and their reports, the more buy-in there will be to the common vision. Over time, these “little” decisions by employees snowball into real and powerful operational performance.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Sehgal: Look at Google. They are re-organizing their businesses (even renaming it with Alphabet) so they can be bolder and make mistakes. But most companies aren’t Google in that they make incremental changes and don’t go for the moon shot. While Schoemaker makes a philosophical point, in my experience executives aren’t going around deliberately planning to fail – or even proactively learning from their mistakes.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Sehgal: Type A personalities want to get the job done themselves. They don’t trust other people because they think the quality or speed of work will suffer.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Sehgal: Leaders have to communicate their vision of the world to their followers, and have to do so in a convincing way. One of the best ways to convince someone is to use a telling example, a story, a narrative. When Steve Jobs announced a new product, he told a story, and explained how a product would change the world as we know it. He turned Apple into a story whose challenges and adventures you want to hear about

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Sehgal: Persistence. Change doesn’t happen overnight. You have to stay with it. Rosa Parks helped start the Civil Rights movement in earnest in 1955. Then it was nearly a decade until the Civil Rights Act was passed. Dr. King had a vision and remained undeterred. He was persistent.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Sehgal: I didn’t attend business school, so I don’t have an opinion based on personal experience.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Sehgal: Retaining talent, especially among Millennials. Gone is the day where you work at a job for thirty years and retire. Millennials jump around and switch careers. I think it’s important for CEOs to highlight career mobility within a company, so that employees don’t get bored and continue to be stimulated.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Kabir cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Coined link

Facebook link

Twitter link

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