Sunday, January 27, 2013

On life, death and courage - A Testimony of Shri Anand Pillai

On life, death and courage
Anand Pillai,
Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at Reliance Industries, discusses his life journey and why leaders must move from their comfort zone to their ‘courage zone’.

Anand Pillai
To understand a person today, it helps to look at the experiences in his past. What happens when we face crises in our lives? Do crises make or break a man?

The day I was born, my father’s business suffered a huge financial loss. As my extended family were very superstitious, they considered me to be a bad omen. To put it mildly, even my immediate family did not treat me cordially.

But, worse was to come. At the tender age of 10, my world came crumbling down. Due to disputes over a piece of property, my father’s brothers cast an evil spirit on him. He then became so tormented that he committed suicide. I kept asking a close friend of my father’s, “What happened? Why did he do this? Why did he leave us?”

Cover page of the magazine
Then, a sequence of events happened in the next eight years that prompted me to start thinking about life after death. Four years after my father passed away, my elder sister got married and some money was given for her dowry. After the marriage, more money was demanded and her in-laws subjected her to mental persecution. She could not bear this and so she consumed poison and died. Two years after that, my aunt, who had been childless for 10 years, could not bear the curse of not having a child, and so poured kerosene on herself and set herself aflame to death.

After these tragic events, I began to develop a strong resolve to make the most of my life, see the world, and do something worthwhile with my time. I wanted to study at the best engineering school I could get into, and studied hard for two long and sleep-deprived years. To my joy, I won admission to the much sought after Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) – widely seen as India’s premier engineering college. However, my dreams were soon dashed.

My mother was adamant that I do not leave our hometown of Bangalore. Perhaps because of her many painful losses, she became extremely protective and possessive of me. She wanted to keep me close to her at all time, and I reluctantly continued in Christ College (Bangalore university) to pursue a degree, majoring in pure sciences, followed by a diploma in Computer Science in another institute.

Then in July 1978 my younger sister was diagnosed with cancer. She was told it was terminal and that she had four months to live. This brought me to question and to seek answers about how there could be an end to this misery, this suffering, and how to find salvation, which in Hindu terms is called moksha (liberation.) I started going to Hindu religious meetings to try to understand the various paths to spiritual liberation. I also asked, “Is this a result of my sin or somebody else’s sin?” There seemed to be so much evil in my family.

When my sister ultimately died, I felt ashamed that I was living and everyone else was dying. I ran away from home with the intention of committing suicide. However, I could not follow through with it because I did not have the answer to my question of “where will I go after death”?

None of the scriptures that I read gave me a definitive answer. About three months after my sister’s death, I was still in this confused state and decided that enough was enough. I got a rope and decided that it was time for me to end my own. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at a thick green book in a nearby cupboard. It was the New Testament. This was given to me at school, but I had never bothered to read it.

At that moment, I felt compelled to pick up the book. I found an index of where to find passages to help you when you have a specific need, such as “when you need peace”, or “when you are feeling sad”, and so on. My name is Anand, which means ultimate bliss. In fact, it is the culmination of peace, bliss and joy. I knew that my need of the hour was peace so I looked up the passage that it referred to. The verse was John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

I said to myself, this is a very strong, very assertive and confirmative statement. I knew what peace the world gave, but this was not that. This is a different peace: this is God’s own peace. Then Jesus said something very important to me in that moment, “Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” This felt like everything I was looking for was in this one passage. It was very definitive. Suddenly even some of the words in the Christian literature I had read previously came alive for me. I realized that Lord Jesus was saying that he had “come so that I could have life at its fullest, which is what I needed, especially at that moment.

I got really excited and decided to postpone my decision to take my own life. I needed to explore this. I thought that I would like to pray to this God. I basically said, “Dear God, you are a Christian God and I am a Hindu, and I want to know more.” I finally made a personal decision (without changing my religion) to follow this Jesus as my Lord & Savior
This happened when I was 20 years old. Since then, the Lord has been wonderful, even though there has been some opposition from my relatives and friends initially. I realized a simple truth, in that all of us have a choice to make when faced with overwhelming challenges.

Looking back, I’m now convinced that I had not succeeded in spite of the challenges in my life – I succeeded because of them. And, I succeeded because I chose to respond proactively, and I had a Saviour who gave the strength from within.

But, my desire to venture into the bigger world was undiminished. After my graduation, an opportunity to interview for the position of a Management Trainee with DCM Ltd in New Delhi arose.

India’s capital city was a world away from Bangalore, which was then a relatively small city. The selection process for this role was very rigorous and stringent. This included various rounds of aptitude tests, analytical ability tests, group discussions and personal interviews. Out of over 16,000 applicants, I understand only 36 were shortlisted for an in-depth interview. I was one among them. I was excited to be so close to securing my dream job.

However, when arrived for the interview, I was told I could no longer be considered because of an oversight. The HR head mentioned that they would only consider applicants with post graduate degrees. I only possessed a post-graduate diploma, and was told to leave immediately.

I paused for a second. And then responded, “Can you please give me 15 minutes of your time? If I turn out to be a poor candidate, you would have only lost 15 minutes of your time. But, I return home now without an interview and you may have lost a good candidate forever”.

My boldness stunned the interview panel. I felt I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. The panel overruled the HR head and decided to proceed and interview me. At the interview, the marketing manager tossed me his watch. “Study its features carefully and be ready to sell this watch to me”.

I examined every single feature of the watch from the gold bezel to the scratch-resistant glass. The marketing manager then asked for the watch back. He looked at me and asked a simple question, “So what was the time on my watch?”

I was stunned. I had noticed every single minute detail, but had failed to notice the time. I saw a crisis but also a glimmer of hope, “Sir, I was focused on the objective that you gave me, and was blind to everything else. Do you remember the story of how Arjuna (from the Mahabarata) learnt archery? When his master asked him to shoot an arrow at the eye of a bird, he could see nothing else. Not the tree, not the sky, not even any other part of the bird. All he saw was the eye. He was blind to everything else”.

I took a big gamble. It paid off. The marketing head was impressed with my fighting spirit and recommended that I be hired. I was overjoyed when a month later I got the selection letter and turned up in Delhi to undertake a standard medical examination for clearance purposes.

But, my joy was short-lived. The in-house doctor who saw the medical reports found that I had low blood pressure. He recommended to the panel that I was not suitable for employment. This was a big shock to me and I was deeply disappointed. After all that effort to land my dream job, I was to be denied on health grounds.

I walked out of the office dejectedly. As I was leaving the place, a familiar voice called out. It was the marketing head who had interviewed me previously. I told him the news that I had low blood pressure, and was deemed unsuitable for hire. He smiled and said, “That doctor does not know you. You have so much life and energy that if you had normal blood pressure, we would not be able to contain you!”

The Marketing Head then overruled the doctor’s recommendation, and offered me the job.

This was the beginning of my journey of work and I have never looked back. It was the first move out of my comfort zone that changed everything. From there on, I have worked across other states in India, and held roles in Singapore, Canada and the US. I have had the privilege of traveling to many different countries and of leading international teams.

When I look back at my career, I realize that I have learnt most from times of crises and adversity. While all of us enjoy living in our comfort zones, growth happens outside our zones of comfort. It happens when we plunge into what I call “the courage zone”. The danger many of us face is that we tend to gravitate towards the comfortable activities over many years. To help my team and myself move out of comfort zones, one thing I practice consciously has been to take on a new role or task every 18–36 months. This forces me to constantly face challenges, learn and grow.

I have learnt a lot about leadership from my work experience, but the fundamentals were forged before I started a single day of work: don’t react to challenges, take charge and respond to them. Never give up. And, dare to go beyond your comfort zone.

(Anand Pillai is the Senior Executive Vice President Business Transformation and Chief Learning Officer at Reliance Industries Limited)


Anand Pillai - 

Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of

Leadership 2011

HR Professional of the year 08-09 & 09-10

Guest lecturer at Leading business schools like: Harvard Business school, MIT-Sloan,

London Business School, IIM-A, IIM-L, SPJIMR, IMT etc.,

He is the Senior Executive Vice President & Chief Learning Officer at Reliance

Industries. His primary focus is on leadership development with a responsibility to

breed Intrapreneurs by imparting skills in all functional areas. With more than 30

years of rich experience in the corporate world, Anand has handled challenging

assignments in general management and as head of operations in companies such

as TATA Group (10 years), Hughes Network Systems and Bay Networks HCL

Technologies Limited & now with Reliance Industries Limited..Anand has been a

much sought after speaker in many national and international forums. He has been

the distinguished speaker at the Fortune Innovation Forum in NY, USA (the only

non American speaker to be


kers.html, at the Fortune Global Forum in New Delhi,


NASSCOM, ISTD, CIO Summit -London, Great places to work conference -

Singapore, World’s most democratic work places summit- Las Vegas, World HRD

Congress, CII, etc.

His leadership and strong vision has succeeded in bring many accolades and

recognition to the company, like “Excellence in Training” for 07-08 & 08-09,at the

Asia Pacific HR Excellence Awards “Contribution to the Field of Global Training and

Development” & Outstanding contribution to the field of Education, at the Global HR

Excellence Awards-2009 and 2010, Award for Talent management, Innovation in

Employee Retention & Career management, Excellence in Training & HR Leadership

award at the Employer Branding Awards. He has also been recognized as “HR

Professional of the Year” 2008-09 and also given the HR Leadership award at the

Global HR Excellence Awards and Pride of the Industry at the Star of India awards.

Anand has been featured in the book “Leading with Wisdom” along with 30 other

leaders (Steven Covey, Abdul Kalam to name a few) in the world. He is also

featured in a new book “Open Source Leader” published by Penguin Publications.

He is certified to conduct leadership & management courses from various

international bodies and is also a Certified Behavioral Analyst. Anand has specialized

in advanced applications of Psychometric instruments (like MBTI, Firo-B, TKI, DISC.,

etc) in areas of, Leadership, Communication, Sales & Customer relationship,

negotiating for value and Team building. He has done extensive research on cross

cultural relationships, Intrapreneurship & Innovation and is widely consulted on

these three subjects across the globe.

To know more about this gentleman please do visit this link: About Anand

Source: Confident Living Magzine, Secunderabad
HQ Asia-Redefining Business Leadership' publication.
Anand Pillai's Facebook page.


  1. Great story of exceptional courage and optimism.

    1. Hi Damyanti,
      Thanks for dropping in and for the valuable feedback.
      Have a good day.
      Keep Inform
      Best Regards