If you want something done

Back in junior high and high school, I had the good fortune of having at least one remarkable teacher – everyone should be so lucky. To say Andy Blackett was eccentric is an understatement. He’d regale his students with fantastic stories of foreign wars and exotic wives, wore his pants two inches too short and became insanely animated when he taught, and so was able to generate enthusiasm among his students over the most mundane of subjects. His trademark clear-heeled shoes and West Indian lilt kept everyone riveted during class, his excitement always palpable. He loved what he did.

Way back in the late 70s I was a sophomore struggling to adjust to life at the high school while working roughly 40 hours per week at a bakery. The sense of overwhelm was incredible: the household chores, the homework assignments, the extra-curricular activities, the attempts at a social life and the full-time job were incredibly taxing. How could I possibly do all that, have a successful high school career, get into college and get ahead in life? Instinctively, I turned to Mr. Blackett.

He provided me with my very first “Master Plan” – six sheets of yellow, legal-sized paper taped together to form a huge poster of sorts, on which I listed all the days of the week, my school, after-school and work commitments and every chore I had to accomplish – accompanied by these words of wisdom: “If you want something done, Mr. Berg, (yes, he’d call me Mr. Berg, even as a student), give it to a busy man.” At once I had an epiphany: Once the work is organized, there’s clarity; once there’s clarity, you can prioritize and go about getting the work done. Surely I was busy, but the work, organized in this way, melted away, and I began to excel in my schoolwork, excel in my extracurricular activities, get my chores done and work after school and on weekends to have more spending money than any of my friends. And I started to date the prettiest girl in school, having wooed her away from the captain of our high school football team with a whole lot of song lyrics and poetry. True story. The feeling of overwhelm went away, the work got done and I realized it was all in the process – the way you went about attacking those commitments and obligations had everything to do with how effective and efficient you were at fulfilling them.

Mr. Blackett died tragically more than ten years ago, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, still only in his 50s. But he died universally respected, adored and honored with just about every award and accolade with which a school teacher could be bestowed. Among his mourners were two other former students, Bob Costas and Rosie O’Donnell, who also learned powerful lessons from this great man.

Today I was reading about Vivek Paul, Wipro’s former vice chairman and CEO, and was reminded once again of Mr. Blackett’s words and the lesson that I’ve carried around for nearly thirty years. Sridhar Mitta, one of Paul’s colleagues at EnThink (a company in which Wipro had invested), was previously head of Wipro’s global R&D function, and so was intimately familiar with the company and its methods. Mitta was amazed that Paul, a busy senior executive at an extremely fast-growing company, was always at hand when needed, and had plenty of time for customers, too.

“How do you have so much time?” Mitta asked, astounded that Paul was so available, especially given that his predecessor at Wipro routinely worked 17-hour days.

Paul, the epitome of a busy man who got things done, had a quick answer which should be a lesson for us all: “It’s all in the process.”

The next time someone tells you they have no time, or they’re too busy, or swamped, or overwhelmed to get something done, you might remind them of this story, and the man that took a $150 million blip and made it a $1.9 billion global powerhouse, or the teacher that left us well before his time, yet still managed to influence generations of students, and continues to do so more than a decade after his death. And they had time.