Monday, July 26, 2010

A mentors' mentor

I didn’t know Tarun Sheth, former Head of Management Development of Hindustan Lever – later mentor at the HR Consulting and Search firm, Shilputsi – that his wife founded and run for the most part by his 2 very talented daughters – Shipa and, later – only, Purvi, too well. I was traveling in the hills of Kumaon last week and missed the news of his death in the papers. I came to learn about it from the email of an old colleague and at once knew that I wanted to attend his memorial service on my return to Mumbai.

the missing "merchants"

So, I went to the Indian Merchants’ Chamber Hall at Churchgate on Thursday evening. It wasn’t a very large gathering. I thought that most people who had come were there not merely to mark attendance. – but, because, they genuinely felt that Tarun had touched their lives meaningfully at some point in their careers. And, this was not limited just to the old Levers fraternity. Apart from family, friends and old neighbours there were few elder IIM – A alumni (he taught there before joining HLL) and some senior corporate professionals whom he would have befriended during his Shilputsi years. The current top-brass of “HUL” were conspicuous by their absence except for Harish Manwani and Shreejit Mishra whom I could spot. But, coming to think of it – Tarun had retired in 1987 and most of today’s stars weren’t – so to speak – even “born” then.

The function itself was understated and dignified in keeping with the personality of the man who was being remembered. A small bunch of people spoke – 6 to be precise including his daughter -Atsi and Ashok Vasudevan who sent a very touching voice-recorded tribute from the US.

the amraas guru

The remembrances marked the measure of the man that visibly resonated with the audience. As in modern high rises, low-ceilings being the order of the new corporate architecture - It’s not just they don’t have room in organizations for professionals as tall – but, as RG (an old friend and associate) wrote in his piece in ET (click here to read) he was a rare HR practitioner with a “humane” side (an oxymoron as it may sound to be).

I didn’t spend much time in Lever House between 1983 (when I joined HLL) and 1987 (when Tarun left) – so didn’t get the opportunity to know him very closely. I have a rather sepia tinted recollection of him in his corner room on 2nd Floor West Wing (which was later appropriated by Amy Kharas and successive Heads of Administration) – that was like an in-house shrink’s cabin of sorts before it was turned into a police station interrogation room in times to come.

{I didn't have the privilege of being invited for any of his fabled "Amraas" parties and, so, had no idea of his legendary capacity for mangoes (believe he could down 25 katoris in a single sitting !!). I do remember a funny incident though, when a new recruit – taking his offer to help him “settle in” too literally – went to him for getting a gas connection that rattled even his most unflappable self.}

I was there at the condolence meeting because, for me Tarun embodied much of the values that, the old HLL – that youngsters joined with stars in their eyes - stood for. If today, Lever can boast of the maximum number of CXOs to have come out of its stable spreading across industries in India and, now, even overseas– a large chunk of the credit must go to the likes of the Sheth - for laying the foundations of the HR system which withstood the ravages of time till the 'age of deconstruction' began.

In a way – therefore - I felt, I was representing in a small way many old compatriots - whose careers he had helped to shape - who wanted to be there but couldn't make it - either because of distance or some other reason.