Interview with Sohail Zindani, CEO, Learning Minds.
AURORA: What is the purpose of Learning Minds?
SOHAIL ZINDANI: I have been in the business of developing people and organisations for 15 years; trying to create the right ambience for people to grow. Unfortunately, in Pakistan we do not consider ambience important. In the last 20 years, almost 80% of the world’s most important innovations came out of California… why? Did the rest of the world lose their intellect, creativity and originality? No; it was the ambience over there; the support governments gave to the universities, the kinds of conversations that happened there… all this created an environment which made it conducive for California to move in this direction. My job is to work with organisations to create an ambience where people can grow and develop. Learning Minds started as a one man company, when I got married it became a two people company and since then it has been growing. We are one of the biggest in Pakistan in terms of operations and clients and if I am not wrong we were the first to take Pakistani trainers abroad.
A: Who are your clients?
SZ: We have over 200 clients in Pakistan and outside – Bahrain, Dubai, East Africa, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. We take pride in working with national companies because we believe that when national companies grow, we grow as a country. Apart from training, we provide a pool of services; we are into e-learning videos, micro learning (the future of learning because this generation does not have the temperament to listen to a two hour talk; they need two minute learning shorts). We are also going into games and simulation.
A: What sorts of services do you provide?
SZ: On the Learning Minds platform we have trainers in various fields of expertise. I personally work in four areas. One, I work with companies on sustainable leadership development and this includes education, coaching and on job assignments. Two, is the innovation mindset programme, where I work with organisations that are transitioning to digital. We work with them not as a technology partner but as a people partner to enable them to embrace technology. One of the biggest mistakes organisations make is to think that acquiring the best technology will get the job done. For example, all the banks offer apps, yet if you ask their branch managers how to use it, they have no idea because they have not embraced it. They still look at technology as a threat rather than an amplification of their job. Three, is trainer development, where I work with organisations to develop their internal trainers; as the economy shrinks, budgets shrink and organisations begin to rely on their in-house resources.
The economy apart, there is a need for the knowledge to remain in-house and one needs to learn how to pass that on. Four, talent management, which depends on the type of organisation we work with. For example, it can be about service talent development. We have worked with clients like Suzuki; we started training them in 2008 and today Suzuki has the biggest dealership network in Pakistan.
A: What about on the company side?
SZ: We have two premium models. Firstly, there are our products. We have expert resources in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which is one of the most prominent development tools in the world. We have coaching services, we have trainers for HR development as well as sales and marketing. We are also working on management innovation. We manage people by using the old industrial method, which is not suited to the knowledge capital way of managing people. People are becoming frustrated. Why are so many people opting for entrepreneurship? Because the leaders at the top do not understand the dynamics of people. Suppose you are in the content business. In the past, you would write something and go through four or five layers of approvals before it finally gets published. Today, thanks to platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, millions of terabytes of data are produced every minute without the need for any proofreading. If you are a Millennial, you will not tolerate going through all these layers of approvals. How long does it take you to check out an Uber driver’s rating? Maximum one second; all the information is on the screen. Ask the CEO of any company to rate an individual and he will take a year to do it.
That is how absurd our systems are. We are not saying it is alright to produce substandard work; the idea is to make the decision-making process more agile. Digital is about real-time and our management models are not designed for real time. This is not a product we are offering yet; at the moment we are doing the research in order to re-evaluate current organisational processes. No one is working in this domain; instead, we are trying to produce something innovative using the same lousy machine and it is not going to happen. You cannot compete with a Ferrari by driving a Mehran; you first need to change your engine. Secondly, Learning Minds acts as a bureau. People with expertise in various areas come to us and we put them in our books and when a company has a need in a specific area we connect them to the company.
A: How receptive are Pakistani companies in terms of investing in organisational change and training?
SZ: A business based on learning can be lucrative but it is also a jihad and one has to work around a lot of mindsets. Multinationals brought in a culture of training, but these days it is the national companies which are spending more – and that is a shift. The multinationals bring in their regional trainers. To answer your question, I once had a conversation with a CEO who said the problem was that although he wanted to train his people to be the best, he feared they would leave. I said: “imagine if you don’t train them and they don’t leave!” Nevertheless, seths make for very interesting customers.
Selling a training programme to an MNC is easy; you just have to speak about long term development goals, people development, the soft side of branding and they buy into it. A seth will not buy into these concepts; he is only interested if it benefits his bottom line. So this is an opportunity for trainers to develop solutions that directly impact the bottom line. A few days ago I was doing a consulting workshop for freelance trainers and someone said that clients did not understand the value they brought to the table. My reply was that either the client is not worth your time or you have not communicated your worth to the client. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate the dollar value of training so that a seth will not look at a training as just a feel good factor (they would rather do CSR) – and this is why we complete our leadership programmes with a quantitative report in terms of how it affected their overall engagement scores, turnover and organisational health – and they love it!
A: Has the seth mindset changed given there is a new generation of CEOs – many of whom have been educated in the West?
SZ: There is change. Take for example the Fatima Group; the son came back and joined his father’s business but he also started Fatima Ventures, which invests in digital businesses. Mehvish Tapal (Aftab Tapal’s daughter) has ventured into Nando’s among other things and the same goes for the daughter at Shan Foods. So they are trying new things. History has a very important role in how businesses have evolved and South Asian businessmen were predominantly traders, so the mindset is: “The stuff arrived, I sold it and made some money.” For this you don’t need vision, you need ambition and they are two different things, although perceived in the same way. We are all ambitious; we want to do more and more but we don’t necessarily know where we are heading.
Tell a seth there is money in cars, he will put his money there; tell him there is money in pharma, he will put it there. But there is no space for innovation, going into a new domain, developing a product line. Look at the kind of fame Bombay Bakery enjoys; had they moved to a franchise model, the bakery would have been accessible all over the world. But they are content having people queuing for their cakes. Mukesh Ambani built a house worth as much as what Pakistan has asked the IMF for. How are we comparable? With Ambani there is vision involved. He launched Jio Mobile and is transforming the technological landscape of India. How many seths, apart from a few, operate at that level? They make money and build a mall; make more money and build another one – very rarely do you find jewels like Habib University or the Karachi School of Business and Leadership.
At most Ivy League universities there is at least one chair endowed in the name of an Indian businessman; can you say the same for any Pakistani business? If you look at the composition of the board of directors at Reliance you will notice that Ambani is the weakest of the lot – and this is why after each meeting he comes out stronger and more informed; we prefer to appoint people we think of as inferior and this does not allow us to rise. I have a lot of hope for the younger generation, but I also hope they will perceive the support that they get from the government as positive, because if they don’t, they will leave. A lot of pharma companies are setting up their factories abroad because of the regulatory issues they face here. One of the challenges for our nation is to create an environment that is firm enough, positive enough and sustainable enough, so that these young people remain.
A: Yet, if you think about the sixties, Pakistani businesses were flourishing and in many ways were at par with India. What happened? What is missing today?
SZ: A deep-rooted distrust has set in. When we were nationalising companies, Reliance was gaining momentum; when we were busy proving that BCCI was corrupt, the world’s banking infrastructure was gaining momentum. We were right up there, neck and neck with India, but then this constant breach of trust has left us in a constant state of chaos, so that the safest thing to do is to think short-term.
A: Do you work with government organisations at all?
SZ: No, for the simple reason that they have never asked. If you want to resolve a problem there has to be intent and this is missing. I have worked with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. They were given the responsibility to effect a transformation in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. They were successful because they started with an intent; first education, then health and then to double incomes in 10 years, because the idea was not to raise educated beggars. So you have to have a vision with a clear intent, a set direction and adequate resources.
A: What are your views about leadership from an organisational point of view?
SZ: In my opinion you become a leader when your perception of life grows beyond yourself. Unfortunately, our definition of leadership is very complicated in terms of competencies and behaviours. Last year we held a leadership academy which was attended by 440 people, a number that no other seminar in Pakistan has ever attracted.
A: From which levels did they come?
SZ: More than 20 CEOs, a lot of senior managers and a lot of frontline people. You need to inculcate leadership at the earliest age possible. In Singapore, they have a mentoring model in their government schools, whereby once students reach Class 6, they become a mentor to a student in Class 3, who they will mentor for the next three years and by the time they reach Class 9, they are given a mentor from Class 10. We recently did a leadership assessment across Pakistan and I was amazed to learn that 59% of the respondents said they gained their inspiration from their peers and colleagues. It is not about leadership development programmes; we need to create an ambience for leadership in Pakistan.
A: Isn’t part of the problem the fact that our education system is flawed?
SZ: Absolutely. The education system we follow was designed to suit the Henry Ford Model. Henry Ford wanted the same type of people to work at his motor company. He has been quoted as saying that he didn’t know why he got a brain attached to two pairs of hands, when he only needed the hands. Next year, we are taking our leadership message to schools.
A: How receptive are schools and are they willing to pay for such a programme?
SZ: No, they are not willing to pay. We are partnering with corporate sponsors, such as Dalda and Abbott. They have their corporate interests and we get to reach an audience who would not have been willing to pay for the programme.
A: Will this be sustainable?
SZ: I believe in going small and sustainable. We are selecting up to four schools to begin; they are neither high-end nor government schools, but somewhere in between. We will see how we can develop this further and scale it up. We are giving ourselves a year to see how it works. To make it sustainable, larger funds are required. My problem is I can’t wait until funds come. So we will make a start; I believe if we do good things, we will be able to attract good people as we move forward.
Sohail Zindani was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: email@example.com