23 Takeaways from Founding Fuel Live: The Best Business Books of Summer 2024

A conversation with Dr D Subbarao, Dr Dana Sinclair and Harit Nagpal, and D Shivakumar

Founding Fuel

This Founding Fuel Live is based on the theme The Best Business Books of Summer 2024. It is based on D Shivakumar’s curated list—this is an exercise he does twice a year and he's been doing it since 2019.

The panel includes three of the authors featured in his selection this year:

  • Dr D Subbarao, the former Governor of the RBI and author of Just a Mercenary? 
  • Dr Dana Sinclair, a performance psychologist who works with professional athletes and teams, and author of Dialed In
  • Mr Harit Nagpal, CEO of Tata Play, and author of Adapt: To Thrive, Not Just Survive

The conversation was anchored by D Shivakumar, who is a well-respected veteran business leader and currently the operating partner at Advent International.

23 Takeaways

1. The ability to transform, to change, and to pick up new things and move forward is a common theme in this year’s selection.

2. “The world and its ways of changing come from very different angles—from a personal angle from Dr Sinclair, a professional and bureaucratic stance from Dr Subbarao and a corporate stance by Harit.” - Shivakumar

3. If you don't read you'll become irrelevant very fast. Read as much as you can. That's the only way you can ensure a long and relevant career.

4. Why they wrote these books:

Dr Sinclair: “After all my years of working with my clients, I wanted everybody to know how they can perform under pressure. Regardless of who you are or what you do, there are strategies to be better.”

Dr Subbarao: “The title of my book is “Just a Mercenary?”… Whatever assignment I had, I tried to do my best. But a question that always runs in my mind is what motivated me? Was I doing my best just because I was getting paid for it, doing out of a sense of duty? Or was I motivated by a higher calling?” 

Mr Nagpal: “A person like me or you, who worked for about four decades in the industry—we've seen change like nobody else has seen before us or probably will see after us… We've seen the internet come in, email, search engines, and now we are looking at the advent of artificial intelligence…. adapting to these disruptions was key and you can't even predict what the next disruptions are going to be.” 

5. “The moment that you want something, you need something, that's when we feel pressure and that's when people can get distracted and not perform as they should or as they can… It could be a sporting event, an interview, a negotiation or leading a tough project…. We all talk about grit and perseverance, but nobody tells you how do I get that to happen for me in my life in these tough moments. It's all about being able to perform under pressure.” - Dr Sinclair

6. “The management mantra is multitasking, doing a number of things at the same time. But I still find that doing one thing at a time is the best thing to do…. Whatever you're doing, do it with complete dedication and sincerity as if it's the only thing that you have to do. Eat while you have to eat; study where you study; play where you have to play; sleep when you have to sleep.” – Dr Subbarao

7. “Make your bed first thing in the morning. It gives you an enormous sense of accomplishment and motivation. And when you return at night, whether you had a good day or bad day, seeing your bed made can be a blessing.” - Dr Subbarao

8. “Listen to the voice of the customer you're serving or the person you're building something for and incorporate that voice into whatever you're doing. Data sometimes doesn't speak by itself.”

“[When buying ice cream] I saw that that brand's cooler always had somebody else's ice cream in it. I asked [the brand manager] why can’t the coolers carry your brand’s ice cream only? He said, ‘I can’t say that because I haven’t been there’…. That man had done his training in a reputed organisation but he'd not walked into the market. He'd just studied on Excel sheets and made models with the sales data from these shops. If he had just walked with the customers he would have got better insights. That is an art we seem to be losing.” – Mr Nagpal

9. “In the world of business and performance in general, it's all about the consistent individual delivery of high performance… There's a lot of talk about teamwork and teams whether it's sports or business. I feel very strongly that you get to the team through the individual. You've got to focus on yourself and learn to coach yourself and find out what gets in your way so that you can upgrade your performance. When you're doing that it's great for you, but it's also great for your team.” – Dr Sinclair

10. “Look at your own self, your own performance styles. Find out what makes you thrive, what gets in the way, and go change it… It does take courage to try to be good and there's a process, a ‘how’ to it.” – Dr Sinclair

11. “The concept of the unit of anything being the individual is getting more and more pronounced today thanks to technology. It allows you to be who you are as an individual as opposed to belonging to a company or a community or a society. And finally, luck and opportunity are changing significantly. Every individual is out on his own to make that luck and make that opportunity and that's why we see that emphasis [on the individual] much more.” – Shivakumar

12. “Talent doesn't ensure success. It's your mental approach. If you can stay calm and clear and focused in the moment, you're going to be able to harness your talent and get the most out of yourself…. What I have seen year after year is that if you're a very talented person but you do not have the character or the capacity to manage your emotions when it gets tough, you are going to fail. 

And I've seen other situations where people who have mediocre talent but they apply their performance style, they're patient, they listen, they can take action, they do not react under pressure—those people win out time and time again.” – Dr Sinclair

13. “Whether I was handling the balance of payments, or promoting industries, or managing state finances, or managing central finances… our economic well being, our emotional well being is dependent on the rains…. Although, over the years, agriculture, as a proportion of GDP has fallen, more than 50% of our labour is still in the agriculture sector. So, the wellbeing of a large majority of the population depends on the performance of agriculture and therefore on the monsoon. To draught-proof our economy, we need to increase the productivity of agriculture. But then the agriculture sector will throw out about 50 to 60 million people and we’ll need to find jobs for them in the manufacturing and services sector.” – Dr Subbarao

14. “The higher up you're on the ladder of decision making, the more of a judgement call it is. There's always a self doubt about whether you're making the right judgement call, especially in public policy, because there are no counterfactuals—there is no way of saying you are wrong…. Decision making is a question of making choices. And I did whatever I believed was in the best public interest.” – Dr Subbarao

15. “You are the captain and you are running the ship, you are guiding the strategy. But you need able people running that ship and you trust them… That's where very often we miss out on gazing into the future.” – Mr Nagpal

16. “Everything you do has a risk attached to it. When the risk you think and your team thinks is calibrated and more than 60 - 70%, then you need to pause. If the risk is in the order of 20 - 30%. that's normal, just keep going.” – Shivakumar

17. “The best leaders have learned to manage their own emotions first, and are able to be more patient. They can settle themselves, soothe themselves enough so that they can think. Because if they cannot think they will not be able to execute when they need to.” – Dr Sinclair

18. “You have a lot of technologies in search of customers, and not solutions to customers problems… if you lead from technology, you create what you think is a fantastic solution for a problem that doesn't exist.” – Mr Nagpal

19. “Confidence is overrated… it’s a variable concept, it can change from day to day, or even moment to moment…. When you're trying to shift your focus, you have to move away from how you feel, your worries or your fears or results or outcome. Being able to pre-plan what you need to do to stay on task… you have to think that through, plan it out a little bit. And when you do start to need to shift, you have a plan ready to go.” – Dr Sinclair

20. “I look at all the lists, the bookshops, I look at who has written it, why they've written it. When I read the book, I underline the important lines, then I summarise it, I key it in, so I actually remember each line in the book virtually three times…. 

You have to give up on something to focus on something. If something is important to you, find the time for it. For me, reading is important, knowledge is important, so I find the time.” – Shivakumar

21. “There are four skills that I use to be able to shift [from distraction to focus]. One of them is calming down and learning to breathe… so you can think [and get] emotional control. Then you can move on to ‘okay, how do I refocus on what I'm actually doing’? – Dr Sinclair

22. “I believe that the five years I spent at the Reserve Bank were a turbulent period for the global economy and for the Indian economy. I believe that my experience of managing those challenges will be of some value to future policymakers—both my failures and my successes. The second reason I wrote that book was to demystify the Reserve Bank.” – Dr Subbarao

23. The panel's book recommendations

  • What I Learned About Investing from Darwin, by Pulak Prasad (Buy it on Amazon)
  • Fear and Other Uninvited Guests: Tackling the Anxiety, Fear, and Shame That Keep Us from Optimal Living and Loving, by Harriet Lerner (Buy it on Amazon)
  • The Coming Wave, by Mustafa Suleyman and Michael Bhaskar (Buy it on Amazon)

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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