Overcoming Setbacks

As you go through life and your career, every once in a while you will encounter some setbacks.  They could set you back in your personal life, career, business and even health.  Some are complicated and require a lot of courage and determination to overcome.

Change management or self-development (“sharpening the saw”) is a critical concept for survival.  Whether it is Fortune 500 companies, major industries or us individuals, if you cannot change you will fall by the wayside.

In 1992 the private sector was licensed to set up banks in India.  I started my career at State Bank of India (SBI), India’s largest public sector bank.  When private sector banks started hiring, I decided to test the market.  I had interviews lined up at two of the private banks sometime in 1995.

At the interview, one member of the panel asked me about the biggest strength that I was bringing to their bank.  I swelled my chest and proudly claimed that I was the best at balancing the books.

Just to give you a little background on balancing.  In those days, SBI and all other (non-private) banks were manually operated.  Ledgers, day-books and progressive journals were all maintained manually.  Debit and credit vouchers (will explain in a second) were hand-written and checked by officers before posting to the ledgers.  Staff salaries were also computed manually, except for assistance by a desk or portable calculator.

The staff would take the checks and deposit slips filled out by customers (also manually) and record the entries in a “day” book.  When passing (approving) the transaction, the officer would make a similar entry (for the exact amount) in a “progressive” journal that they would maintain.

All summary entries would be recorded in a Cash Book, which had to be balanced at the end of the day.  This was mandatory.  The balancing of the cash book indicated that all entries were reconciled.

Balancing the cash book was the task of the officers at the end of the day, after the clerical staff (who had written the Day Books, had left, after office hours).

With different handwriting, a few thousand entries, manual totaling and multiple different ledgers, you can imagine the difficulties in balancing. It would take about an hour on a good day, and more than three hours on bad days to complete the task.  Balancing had to be done on a penny-to-penny basis.

Somedays, we would be forced to give up, and do the task early morning, with fresh minds, the next day.

I had built up such tremendous skills at identifying the source of errors and fixing balancing, that my team would always seek to ensure I was present during the exercise.  I would intuitively know where a 7 was interpreted as a 1, where a 29 was written as a 92, where a 0 was dropped, etc.

I was very good at balancing and more importantly, loved the challenging task!

Balancing the cash book ensures that the ledgers (system of record for account balances – based on which interest is calculated and payments are made) are accurate.  So, this was no trivial task.

Back to the interview.

I told the panel that my skill at balancing the books had helped my previous branch get a good annual inspection rating, and personal recognition for me.

The panel members clapped and looked at me in amazement – as the savior of their new bank!


No – that did not happen!


The panel members looked at each other silently.  One of them told me that their bank was computerized and had a central database.

I played my balancing record once again, telling them how much time I could save their bank in performing such a crucial task.

Another interview member explained to me that the double-entry book-keeping was in-built into their system.  Entries do not get posted unless they are balanced – by the system, not humans – in real-time.

Now it was my turn to stare at them silently.

Then the third member gave it to me – bluntly.

We do not need your skills in this bank!

You are redundant.  The skill that you pride yourself on – your most honed skill – is done by a machine!

I went home as if hit by a truck.

Later, after about two years, I joined a software consulting firm and thus changed myself – role, industry, job and even country – completely.

Now when I look back at those events, it was desperation that made me change myself.  It was fear.  Fear and desperation can be huge motivators.

Now – in the age of the digital economy – I am sensing a very similar situation.

Machines are once again poised to take over the tasks and jobs that we – humans – are experts in.

Jobs that require strength, speed, finesse and even processing data and matching patterns are being done by machines.

An operation as complex as driving is gradually being taken over by machines.  When they completely take over, there won’t be too many errors.

This is not a pie in the sky.  Google’s driverless car has clocked 4,000,000 miles and Uber is already testing its self-driving cars in major cities having clocked 2,000,000 miles.  In fact, Uber has ordered 24,000 Volvo XC90s over the next 5 years. (Incidentally, this is change management for Uber, for it to stay relevant against its competition).

Unlike 1996, the automation this time around is taking place at a ridiculously high rate, by a lot more people and companies, and in many locations around the world.

We must be desperate and fearful to change once again.

As the quote goes, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road ….. unless you fail to make the turn”.  The next bend is coming fast.