Dr. Shantha Mohan, co-founder of Retail Solutions Inc., a retail data analytics company, sat down with India Currents to talk about her new book on leadership, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles: Actionable Tips and Tools for Becoming Better at Leading.
In 2019, India Currents interviewed her after she wrote a book about pioneering Indian women engineers.
IC: You’ve had a long and distinguished career in the industry, having been a leader, mentor and advisor for several years. Was this book years in the making?
SM: It was, in my mind. But I found the time to put pen to paper only after retiring from the company I co-founded. I felt the time was right to talk about the kind of humanistic leadership I envisioned for tech leaders who are problem-solvers but could use a bit of mentoring in dealing with the essential aspect of any organization—the people.
I had gained an enormous understanding of leadership in working with my global, distributed engineering teams, and I wanted to give a head start to those aspiring leaders just starting on their journey. I am very much a goal-oriented individual, and after submitting my idea to my editor at Routledge Press, I had a deadline and moved swiftly to meet it.
IC: I find the chapter titles to the Beatles’ songs refreshing, but also intriguing. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
SM: There are so many books on leadership. I wanted my book to be unique and reflect the inspiration I have had listening to The Beatles throughout my life. I was 17 years old when I first heard The Beatles and fell in love with the music. While studying engineering in the 1960s, I stayed in a women’s hostel. The resident student advisor was the only one with a radio, and some of us begged her to use it on Saturday nights when the Listener’s Choice program came on All India Radio, Madras. The Beatles’ songs from the program sounded magical. A lifelong fan was born.
The Beatles were leaders of the music industry. In the early days, they encountered many rejections and persevered. They took risks throughout their careers by experimenting with distinct elements of music. They devoted an enormous amount of time to their craft. They embraced their differences and their individual strengths and weaknesses and created music that transcends generations of music lovers. Their music is timeless, just as certain principles of leadership are.
IC: In your book, you also talk about building a network of mentors. We generally work on having one coach or a mentor. Did you have multiple coaches or mentors, and how did that help?
SM: It is a fallacy that you work with only one mentor or coach. First of all, our goals and aspirations change throughout our lives, and those we seek advice from also change. For example, when I was growing up, my older sister was not only my role model but also my mentor. She also counseled my younger sisters and me in all things related to school and childhood anxieties.
Professor Gerald Thompson, my thesis advisor, became my mentor when I entered graduate studies. I was not a typical graduate student. I had a four-year-old child. When my classmates went bar-hopping, I would go home to take care of my child and house. He understood my desire to balance my time with my child, and the time dedicated to doing my graduate studies. He was empathetic. He was a great researcher and an excellent mentor, patient and gently guiding my research. He kindled my lifelong passion for research and solving business problems. His motto—“finding the best way to do things,” is something I try to practice even today in my life.
Today, we live in a complex world, and diversity also applies to mentors. I like seeking input from many, but think for myself about how I want to use those inputs. In discussing the origin of the word mentor, Merriam Webster says, “Today, we use the word mentor for anyone who is a positive, guiding influence in another (usually younger) person’s life.” That definition gives you a lot of latitude in interpreting mentoring.
Anyone who can teach you something is your mentor. Coaches are a bit different. You seek them out on specific aspects of learning, usually over a short period—for particular skills such as writing, music, career transition, etc.
IC: That’s a nice distinction between mentoring and coaching. We now live in a world that appears to be deeply divisive, more than ever before. How does your leadership advice fit in such challenging times?
SM: You ask an excellent question. What kind of leadership can unite people in these troubling times? I will limit my answer to the troubling times in business. We have employees who want flexibility in where and when they will work. Employers would like everyone in offices because it gives them a feeling of control and makes their lives a bit easier. Most of the chapters of leadership lessons from the book apply to this situation extremely well.
Let me give you five examples. All You Need Is Love—leading with your heart and being compassionate. I Me Mine—empowering your teams to do their jobs, keeping in mind the mutual trust required to do so. Any Time at All—being available and approachable. Help! and Within You Without You—using the power of humility and vulnerability to solve problems collaboratively. Let It Be—managing the stress we are all under in these difficult times. I could go on with more, but will stop there.
IC: That is a great teaser, which, I am sure, will pique the interest of your readers. Final question: your writing is as fascinating as your career—having authored ranging from Women in Engineering to Artificial Intelligence to this one on Leadership now. We are eager to know what’s next.
SM: I haven’t decided yet. Publishing is an arduous process, and I am still working on promoting this book. Though, I have a few topics in mind. Mentoring is one of them. I mentor undergraduate students at my alma mater in India, the College of Engineering, Guindy, looking for guidance in higher studies and careers. I am a mentor in the Society of Women Engineers mentoring program, where the focus is on career growth, transition, and higher learning. I also am a mentor in the program run by the Carnegie Mellon Women’s Association (CMWA). Some mentees reach out to me on social media, such as LinkedIn, regarding their startups. I think there is a book that could come out of this rich experience of mentoring. We will see.