Up close & personal with Robin Sharma

  • Business
  • Saturday, 16 May 2009

IN the ballroom of a magnificent hotel in Selangor, sit a rapt audience of nearly 350 people from various walks of life, listening intently to the rich, emotive baritone of one of the world’s most popular leadership and performance coaches, Ugandan-born Canadian Indian Robin Sharma.

“What would you want page 299 of your 300-page autobiography to say?”, Robin throws the challenge to the audience. Just as we’re mentally chewing on that one, he releases more tinctures of motivation, some of which he readily admits sounds “cheesy”. “We don’t appreciate work until we arrive at our retirement party.” “Don’t postpone. You never know when is your last day.” “Problems are precious things as they introduce us to the dormant pockets of genius we didn’t know we had.”

New-age psycho babble, you might say. But believe it or not, self-help or life coaching is a booming multi-billion dollar business and it thrives on people’s hunger, not to discover something new but to be inspired and reminded (over and over again) that there’s a life more fulfilling that awaits everyone. Even Robin tells his Malaysian audience that: “You’re not going to hear anything new today.”

Different strokes for different folks

From breezy titles such as Jack Canfield’s and Mark Victor Hansen’s “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, to those that pique curiosity like Robin’s The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari to powerful parables such as Paulo Coelho’s “By the River Piedra I sat down and wept” to pragmatic titles like Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people”, these success literature draws an almost stampede-like following to satiate one’s quest for a better life and to warm hearts and inspire souls.

“Whether it is Bogota, Kuala Lumpur or Paris, many of us are struggling with the same things and have the same hopes – to be more successful in work, to navigate the difficult times, have better health, more love and strike a good balance between material (possessions) and inner peace,” says Robin in an interview with StarBizWeek.

But what sets him apart from the big band of life coaches around the world?

“My voice. I think each one of us in this field has our own unique voice and our own language. I try to make it entertaining. People find my work very simple and doable.”

“I tend to identify with the underdogs and those who have been knocked down because they’re far more colourful and interesting.”

Robin’s leadership workshops have a particularly non-polarising theme - “Lead Without Title”. “It’s a simple message – to be great at every touch point. You don’t need to have a title to be a leader. To be successful, whether you’re sweeping up or running a company, you must show leadership within your own role. And that applies to your home life as well,” he says.

“Try to be brilliant at a few things. For me, I focus on being a great father, on developing my self and my passion like skiing. My work is one of the great loves of my life.”

At the age of one, Robin’s Kashmiri parents, left Uganda for Toronto where his Dad, Shiv Sharma, a physician set up practice. His Mom Shashi, is a school teacher and his brother Sanjay, a well-respected eye surgeon. This would mark Robin’s third trip to Malaysia and this time, to conduct a leadership workshop on “High Performance Leadership in Turbulent Times” organised by HRnet Performance Consulting Sdn Bhd.

Turning point

In many ways, Robin is Julian Mantle – the protagonist in his best seller The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. They were both high-flying lawyers grappling with disenchantment. But while the fictional character owned a Ferrari, Robin drove a flashy BMW.

In the fable, Julian, a top league lawyer faces a spiritual crisis after he collapses in a crowded courtroom from a near-fatal heart attack. He throws in the towel (and with that, his shiny red Ferrari, huge mansion and private jet) for a life changing odyssey in India where he is transformed into an energetic and youthful person, and returns home as a robed monk to spread the wisdom he has learnt from his mentors.

But Robin’s turning point was far less dramatic. “There was no light bulb moment. It was gradual. I left the law because I was empty inside. There was an inner ache to explore and I moved into this new field. If you trust life, it can lead you in the most interesting direction.

His first book Mega Living was self published in 1995 but it didn’t get as riveting a response as the second book. “I wasn’t discouraged. I have a fierce hunger to make everything better. I actually edited it three to four times and tried to make it as good as I could possibly make it. I loved doing it, enjoyed the writing and so, I went on to write my second book.”

“I wrote The Monk who sold his Ferrari and after that, people started inviting me to public events, then organisations started asking me to talk to their employees and things sort of unfolded from thereon.” His other best sellers include “The Greatness Guide”, “The Saint, the Surfer and the CEO” and “Who Will Cry When you Die?”

He recalls his Dad’s mantra during his growing up years – “keep on dreaming” and “never forget the power of a good idea”. He cautions however: “Ideation without execution is nothing more than delusion.”

But when does one cross the line from dreaming big to building castles in the air?

“If you look at any great business leader, they could have been accused of building castles in the air. Bill Gates started out having a vision of having a PC in every desk and every home. Google’s vision was to make information accessible to everyone. The Wright brothers’ plan to build a flying machine could have been perceived (then) as building castles in the air.

“Don’t be afraid to stretch beyond most people’s thinking. I don’t think we should set limits. Life is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we dream too small, we live too small.”

A private persona

Robin’s global consulting firm Sharma Leading International Inc, which he unabashedly admits, is run as a commercial enterprise – “I don’t hide the fact that I’m running a business. If you are delivering value, there is nothing wrong with being compensated for it” – is a lot smaller than you think. It has six full-time staff!

“We are very good at building great partnerships. We are a virtual company with 500 people.” His website is run by people in India and the multi-media in Serbia.

“We are a very innovative and nimble entrepreneurial company.”

Personally, his milieu comprises a “small close circle of friends who are special to me but are not famous people”. “When I’m travelling and giving presentations, it’s very public and busy and the pace is quick. Yet in my personal life, I try to keep both feet on the ground and keep things simple ... enjoy the simple pleasures.”

Robin’s face visibly lights up when he talks about his one great passion – reading. Hardly uncommon, until he confesses: “I just love the smell of books. Sometimes, I’d buy a book I’ve read before because it has a different cover. If I’ve bought a hard cover book, I’d still buy it again in paper back.”

He cites the various books that have left a deep imprint on his life – Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livinston Seagull, Winning by Jack Welch, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill among others, indeed, a must-read in the self-help genre.

“But I can’t choose just one author who has made a difference in my life. It’s like asking me which one of my children I love most!”

At the tail end of the interview, I pose the same question he asked the audience at the workshop. “What would you want people to say at your retirement party?”

He dives in with a reply: “I don’t worry much about what people would say at my retirement party. First of all, I don’t think I’d ever retire. My vision is to keep on speaking and writing books until the last day of my life. I try to live for the moment and do my best everyday.

“But (if at all) I’d like people to say that I really cared about helping human beings and I have made a difference.”

There you go. That’s Robin’s “page 299”, right there.

A glimpse of wisdom from Robin Sharma

l For one who has lost a job: “Crisis breeds opportunity. So this could be the beginning of an even better career.”

l On the brink of losing their job: “Don’t put your attention on the potential job loss. Put all your attention on doing even better work. Focus on what’s good and find meaning in the work”

l Companies struggling to stay afloat: “Now is not the time to bury your head in the sand. There’s never been a better time to stand out and develop/hire talent.”

l Those in bad relationships: “Own your power. You have a lot more choices than you are recognising.”

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