How much weight do you give to being vocal about your work vis-à-vis being a quiet but hard and competent worker?
You can be quiet and hardworking, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have opinions. In my book I emphasize on being interesting and interested. Opinions are formed only when you have multifarious interests. Otherwise you’re very insular. When was the last time you noticed a ship that sailed in the night. You only admire its glory during daylight. The critical point is not to be loud and vulgar for attracting attention to your work. But to have opinions and to communicate them well. Because that’s what’ll get you noticed and if you aspire for success, then it’s important to get noticed. The name of the book is Get to the Top, not get to the middle.
You’ve given examples of public speakers such as US President Barack Obama and their ability to speak well as being the key to their success. What about those of us who lack this skill?
A skill like public speaking can be acquired. Not all of us are born with it, we work at it. And for success, its important to acquire this particular skill of public speaking. Take the most germane issues in India, for instance. Even though I have the highest respect for Dr Manmohan Singh, but sometimes his inability to articulate or his silence is seen as a sign of weakness. Look at people like Arun Jaitley or Kapil Sibal. You may not agree with what they’re saying, but they put across their views and they get heard. It’s critical in today’s world to get heard.
Get heard: Public speaking is an art, says Suhel Seth.
Often people appear opinionated to draw attention at a meeting or a conference. How do you draw the line between provocative opinions to get attention and just putting your point across?
I have drawn that essential difference in the book. An opinion will come across as provocative for two reasons. One, if it’s been said for the sake of saying it. So don’t share an opinion if you don’t necessarily believe in it. If you believe in it, the transparency and trust of that belief will shine through. Whether it is seemingly provocative, people will know that you meant it in the right spirit.
Second, don’t use controversial analogies. Don’t use religion, caste, poverty, wealth and things like that to illustrate. Back it up with sound logic or facts. That way you’re not seen as someone rude or arrogant who says “it’s my way or the highway” but people see that you’re saying something because you have a strong reason for it. Logic is a critical ingredient of all opinion forming.
You say that strong opinions can win you friends or earn enemies in the office. Is it not better then to be diplomatic?
When we are in the workplace, we are there as workers, not diplomats. At work and home, diplomacy is not a virtue. You’ve got to be honest and transparent. Don’t skirt the thin line. Winston Churchill said you have to be popular, only with your wife. At offices, people refrain from saying something because they’ll think, “Oh, I’ll become unpopular”. But you’re not there for popularity. You’re seeking consent or agreement or unanimity, just to get things to work. I’ve learnt it the hard way that you will make enemies, but in the long run, even those guys will see that you had your heart in the right place. You should say what you want, just don’t be malicious. Let people not doubt your intent.
In the chapter “The Trust Rule”, you’ve talked about the issue of office gossip. How have you dealt with it in your professional life?
Disagreement on fact and bad mouthing are two different things. Disagreement comes from the mind. Bad mouthing comes from maliciousness. You can’t be manipulative and full of guile and trying to stab each other, because nothing comes out of it. Whenever I’ve led a company or a department and two people have had an issue with each other, I’ve put them in the same room and said, “sort it out”. For two reasons: I don’t want to come across as someone who’s taking sides. And I want to send across the signal that no gossip and bad mouthing is tolerated.