The dancing CEO

Sandeep Dhar, who heads Tesco, admires the unfettered life of his favourite pop stars, and equally, the quiet pragmatism of Chinese philosophy.

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When he casually says he idolises Madonna, I am taken aback. Now, that’s hardly the way a corporate honcho begins an interview. Uh-oh, this is not going to be business-as-usual, I think. Tesco HSC chief Sandeep Dhar doesn’t fit my idea of a ‘captain of industry’.

“I am a CEO with a heart,” Dhar ventures, laughing, as if that explains things. The first thing he asks me for is permission to “ramble on”. I readily agree. It’s not an offer a reporter gets every day. The informal feel of his cabin makes it easy to believe we are in a café, chatting away over coffee.

On his first day at Tesco, Dhar was asked to write a speech he would deliver to his employees. To everyone’s surprise, he announced he would go extempore, saying he wanted to speak from the heart.

“But CEOs don’t have a heart,” a sceptical colleague gently tried to remind him, to no avail. Four years later, you actually bump into Tesco employees who swear their boss does have a heart.

But first, I had to settle this Madonna business; images of the diva singing and gyrating were flashing through my mind. “Why Madonna?” I ask. “Because she has lived life on her own terms. She hasn’t gone by society’s definitions of right and wrong, but has experimented with life.”

That’s fine, but why not a management guru? “You can take a good thing from Jack Welch , another from someone else, but you have to experiment with yourself. It’s all about being yourself.”

Being yourself.  I’ve heard that before, so I undertake a furtive survey of his book shelf, and as if to confirm my hunch, spot such vaunted names as Guy Kawasaki and Kahlil Gibran.

I ask him about his reading. “Poetry, mostly. Gibran, Rumi and Pablo Neruda. Gibran can create havoc in your mind. He should be read with some care,” he cautions.

I needn’t have worried. Dhar is no Dale Carnegie in the making, spouting ready wisdom about the importance of winning friends and influencing people.  He confesses to a love for  the Persian Sufi poet Rumi and the Marxist Neruda, but laments that a lot is lost in translation. “I wish I could read Neruda in Spanish. I did learn the language, but it’s just basic, not enough to relish poetry,” he says.

Since we are on the subject of books, does he have a favourite? “The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. It’s primarily a religious text. I am a Hindu by birth but follow Taoist philosophy,” he says. So what draws him towards Taoism, the state religion of ancient China, with its great emperors among its followers? “The pragmatism of it all,” he replies.

An explanation follows: “If you talk about action, for instance, then Taoism says that excessive action is counter-productive. Keep trying and work hard, but you should know where to stop. Effort beyond a point is useless. If you keep sharpening a sword, there will be nothing left. If you keep rubbing it against a stone, one day it will disappear.”

I’m slightly confused. “So, what do you have tell those who say, follow your dream, aim high, don’t stop till you achieve?” I ask.

Dhar plays that one straight: “Who sets your goal? Who defines your dream? You should do it yourself. You can become a CEO at 30, no doubt. But I guarantee you will have no family life. There should be a work-life balance.”

“How old are you?” I ask, attempting to veer the conversation away from philosophical heights. It turns out he is 47. So, didn’t he set a goal for himself? “No. I had no yearning or aspiration that I have to become so and so. One should keep learning new things and applying new skills. Do it constantly and well enough. Success is inevitable.”

Dhar graduated in physics and had plans of pursuing a PhD and becoming a teacher. “I found that it doesn’t pay very well. So the next obvious thing was an MBA,” says the IMT Ghaziabad alumnus. His journey from a Kawasaki Bajaj-riding salesman to a BMW-driving CEO has had its share of bumps.

He started off selling software for NIIT in Bangalore, where he admits he didn’t fare well.

“I spent more time evading the watchful eyes of the boss,” he reveals. He went on to sell Hewlett Packard products for a company called Bluestar in Delhi, travelling 100 km each day on a bike in the heat of Delhi.

He then went on to become the “equivalent of a call centre agent” for Citibank; the “first Indian call centre agent who did night shifts in the banking sector.” Here he stuck around for a while before climbing the ladder at ABN Amro, then Mphasis-EDS and Sapient, and finally, Tesco.

So, what’s the view from the top like? He comes back with an interesting (if literal) anecdote from the time he worked for Citibank in Mumbai, where his office overlooked the swimming pool of the Oberoi Hotel. “I saw people lying by the pool all day, doing nothing. I said to myself the day I get to do that, my goal would be accomplished. But when the day came, I couldn’t do it for more than five minutes. I wondered how anyone could spend the whole day there.”

Does he have any more dreams left, or is it just going to be sagely contentment from now on? “I want to act in a film, any film; Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood,” he says, the excitement palpable, and in the manner of a fresh face desperately hoping to convince a director. “I can dance, I can fight and act.”

Tesco employees would vouch for his dancing skills, having watched him perform any number of styles from Michael Jackson to Shah Rukh Khan at the company’s Annual Foundation Day events. Those shows were not meant for mere entertainment, he adds. “People here are young. I have to be young to connect to them. I believe I am young.”

Anyone who sees Sandeep in action at his weekend Tai Chi classes would agree. Before he discovered Tai Chi, he used to be a yoga practitioner who looked down upon the Chinese martial arts. “Now, I’d say the Chinese have taken yoga and given it a new dimension,” he says.

His family has been supportive. By way of compensation, he makes it a point to spend the weekends with his wife and three children, and often holidays with them in Thailand. But there is one thing he hasn’t got his wife’s approval to buy: a Kawasaki Ninja motorbike.

“There’s a fluorescent green model at their Indiranagar showroom. Whenever I pass by, I look at it, but my wife firmly says no. She still dreads riding pillion with me as in the earlier years of marriage!” he chuckles.

The hour I had been granted is up, and I thank him for his time. “But I have time, I do the least work in office,” he jokes, before walking us out of the floor with a “Keep in touch.”

That’s just the kind of thing CEOs say, I think, but by the time I return to office, I have a friend request from him on Facebook. He means it, after all.

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