Sanjeev Aga works in the quintessential corner office, with all the paraphernalia that accrues over a corporate career spanning 37 years. The managing director of telecom firm Idea Cellular has a panoramic view, a large L-shaped desk, leather sofas, a wooden coffee table, a coat hanger, a flat-screen TV, a smattering of books, commemorative trophies and decorative objects, and even a golf-putting set.

At first glance, it is entirely stereotypical—and also entirely deceptive.

Of the many artefacts displayed neatly on shelves, only some objects really define Aga’s approach to work; he admits that many items have little personal meaning. So I adopt the lens of an office detective, sifting real clues from trivial ornamentation, and delve into a discussion on the contents of Aga’s workspace, and on his business itself.

An hour’s investigation later, I have shortlisted three items. Each highlights his most compelling management trait: his ability to reflect on the bigger picture, to translate those insights into everyday action and to communicate them to his co-workers—an unusual combination of theory and pragmatism.

Unravelling the clues

The first clue hangs off the walls of Aga’s small private meeting room, next to his cabin. It is a poster of Socrates, with the famous quote, “the answer to the idea of philosophy began with a question" (it has particular resonance for me. Over a decade ago, Aga was the managing director of Blow Plast Ltd, our family business. As a raw management trainee, my interactions with him evolved over a series of Socratic-style business tutorials, where he “taught" business concepts by answering my questions).

No-nonsense outlook: (clockwise from top) The white marker board positioned next to Aga’s desk is integral to his working style; the different posters in Idea Cellular’s office; and the posters, says Aga, encourage the staff to look at questions ‘from a very different angle’. Ritam Banerjee / Mint

This approach to branding the work environment is unusual for being literary, not literal. Most companies simply adopt their brand logo colours when designing their office furniture, or plaster the walls with brand imagery.

Idea’s attempt is far more intellectually rigorous. The posters specifically highlight only those ideas—such as relativity and genetics—where the challenge lay not in inventing new technologies, but in “just looking at the question from a very different angle", explains Aga.

This follows his belief that the Idea brand is about “keeping an open mindset, asking some deeper, philosophical questions and seeking to answer them" by generating “simple ideas for big problems". This positioning has been repeatedly demonstrated in its iconic advertising campaigns, where mobile telephony is offered as a straightforward solution to various issues in both the personal and public spheres, such as individual health, education or democracy.

Interestingly, the poster also embodies Aga’s nuanced approach to branding itself: the ability to articulate the essence of a brand, and to manifest that intellectual brand essence into physical form.

Mark my words

The second clue to Aga’s work style is a white marker board positioned next to his desk. As we discuss the telecom business, Aga rises to illustrate his point on the whiteboard, in an almost professorial manner. It is a simple, instructive gesture, and validates my perception of Aga as someone who could fit the classical definition of an ivory-tower academic. He is polite, soft-spoken, formal, prone to long explanations, reasonably technophobic—a business leader who is unquestionably old-school in his manner.

Yet he is also a pragmatist—a manager who thrives in highly dynamic, marketing-led businesses, all ahead of their time, whether paints in the 1970s and 1980s, toys and luggage in the 1990s, or telecom in the last decade.

The whiteboard underlines his approach to work, explaining the contrasting styles of academic and realist. Whiteboards are not usually essential components of CEO offices, as most seem to prefer verbal, rather than written, explanations. For Aga, it is clearly a tool that allows him to communicate his big-picture perspective and draw tangible action points during discussions with colleagues.

His views on the rattled telecom industry, currently grappling its most severe crisis, exemplify his ability to think both theoretically and pragmatically. Like many others, he views the scandal as an inevitable outcome of a beleaguered national moral compass. But he remains idealistic about the larger purpose of mobile telephony in India. His gospel, especially to his younger colleagues, is that it is a vital comrade to India’s social, cultural and economic development. His recent open letter to Union minister of communications and information technology Kapil Sibal (with quotes from the children’s epic, Alice in Wonderland), published in The Economic Times, urging him to take a re-look at the telecom policy, captures his ability not to miss the forest for the trees.

It’s not all about the money

The third and final item, I am pleased to note, is a treasured memento from the past: a bright red Hotwheels car from his days as the head of our erstwhile joint venture with American toymaker Mattel. The item symbolizes another “Aga life-lesson": “Along with monetary rewards and promotions, return on emotional investment (RoEI) is important. You put your emotion into a company and should feel good about your time spent there, that’s your emotional return." His decision to preserve a little toy car, and to specifically highlight it as one of his valued objects, is testimony of high RoEI.

Our conversation, and my exploration of Aga’s office space, inspires me to draw my own big-picture lesson: Each office tells its own story. Space can be a powerful narrative medium, consciously or otherwise.

Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

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