'My Big Takeaway: Paying Attention To Others' Needs'

From working at a nightclub to publishing books—the learnings for this CEO have been rich and varied

By Ananth Padmanabhan Updated: Jun 14, 2019 11:34:49 IST
'My Big Takeaway: Paying Attention To Others' Needs' Ananth Padmanabhan is the CEO of HarperCollins Publishers India.

I come from a family of book lovers. My uncle used to run a lending library close to our house in Chennai, and, as kids, my brother and I would spend our evenings reading at the library or bringing books home. So after my 12th standard exams, when I had some time on my hands, I decided to work in a bookstore as a floor manager. Landmark was the big store in town back then. I had to go through four interviews to get the job. Obeid, my mentor, wasn’t testing to see if I was skilled enough for the job; he just wanted to make sure that I was serious enough.

Around the same time, my friend Shiv, who used to run a nightclub called Zouk at The Ambassador in Chennai, asked me if I could manage the club for him. His DJ had split and Shiv decided to take on the role himself. So I would work at the bookstore Monday to Friday and manage the nightclub on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

It was the excitement of doing something new that led me to take up both jobs. But I soon learnt that I had to subdue my boyish glee. For instance, at the nightclub I couldn’t dance or drink. I had to be a professional and make sure that everyone else was having a good time. It wasn’t always easy. Guests often got drunk and boisterous, and I had to ensure that one person’s fun wasn’t ruining another’s night. We would even go out of the hotel to the autorickshaw stand and make sure nothing untoward was happening there. Paying attention to the needs of others is something I have carried forward in my role as a CEO in book publishing. People spend eight to 10 hours in their workspaces and for me it’s always been important to think about how I can make it worthwhile for them.

Life at the bookstore was like working at a candy store. I would pore over the books whenever I could. I was one of the people in charge of the front display where all the new books were stacked. Those were pre-internet and pre-mobile phone days. The publisher would tell us in person or over the telephone about the latest Jeffrey Archer or Wilbur Smith novel. But when a customer came up to me and asked about the new Wilbur Smith, I would be surprised about how he/she came to know about it. The journey of a book—from being written to making it to a bookstore to people hearing about it—fascinated me; it still does.

It was because of these jobs that I grew up much faster. For instance, I bought my first motorcycle with my earnings, while still in college. That meant that I took my first loan at a very young age. Both jobs were part of the service industry, and hence, they taught me to pay attention to nuances while catering to a reader or entertaining a customer. I learnt about behaviour patterns, reading habits, culture trends and knew where to look for them too. I still use those ‘consumer insights’ as a publisher. The only thing I don’t miss is getting couples to stop making out in the club! My learning curve was steep and both jobs helped me understand that my love for books overrides everything else—which is why I do what I do.

As told to Blessy Augustine

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