Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Sojourner's Tale

“My mind is in a state of constant rebellion. I believe that will always be so.” 
– George Leigh Mallory
The first question that any armed forced personnel asks a civilian at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) training camp is, ‘Why have you opted for this course?’ (It seems like the Basic/Advance Mountaineering course is more like a mini-vacation (with full respect) for them, after what they go through in the high altitude mountain ranges where they patrol for hours, day and night) And of course, us trying to show off, go saying, ‘Passion, love for the mountains, adventure, and all the good stuff!’ They don’t understand why one would go through so much of physical and mental stress for the sake of fun. And it’s true; mountaineering is not meant for everyone. It is demanding physically as well as mentally and a not to forget, requires a lot of luck!

HMI Entrance

HMI Campus Atrium

I had opted for the Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC 298 Batch) at The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling after a friend recommended the course. This was fueled by a lot of books and literature on mountaineering and expedition tales. The course was scheduled from 17th October 2013 to 16th November 2013. You require a lot of physical body conditioning prior to the training. Training would involve running at least 5 kms a day, walking flight of stairs for hours, trekking with at least 10-15 kgs in your rucksack. Coming from Mumbai, this still doesn’t prepare you for the actual stuff in the mountains. 

The first day of the course there were around 50+ students from all over India with various backgrounds (students, professionals, entrepreneurs, armed force personnel, etc). Students still kept pouring in till the 4th day at the institute and the final tally at the HMI base in Darjeeling was 64. Day 1, we were all divided in multiple groups or in mountain terminology ‘Ropes’, with one student being the rope leader and an instructor in charge. The instructors had varied backgrounds, some being from the armed forces and some local to Darjeeling. They were very well experienced, and some had even conquered the mighty Mt. Everest. The Course Director was Mr Lakpa Sherpa who’s reputation preceded him (An Everester as well as an accomplished climber for years). The first week consisted of early morning physical training and classroom sessions throughout the day. For a week we were not allowed to leave the institute for any reason. During the week we were allocated our mountain gear, consisting of cold weather gear and technical equipment. Fully loaded the rucksack weighed around 15+ kgs. Around day 6, they took us for an 11km (one way) hike to a place called ‘Tiger Hill’ (8600ft). You get a panoramic view of the Sikkim Himalayas including Everest and Makalu, but the weather didn’t work in our favor. The trek is supposed to be a prequel to what we would endure on our journey to the HMI basecamp in Sikkim. The trek also acts as a filter to exclude those who can’t make it this time from the main trip to the basecamp. And that’s what exactly happened, few students dropped out due to injury and/or personal reasons.

Personally, I started facing ligament issues in my knees (a past running injury) right at the beginning of the course. The downhill runs in Darjeeling simply aggravated the injury. In my head I thought my journey would end right before it started. But, after I mentioned this to one of the instructors, he asked me to take it easy for the next few days especially during the physical training. That did work for me, and I was able to complete the Tiger Hill trek successfully. But, the injury wasn’t the only setback to happen on the entire trip. There were more to follow. One of the days at the institute we had our medical tests done. Turned out that my blood pressure and my pulse rate were higher than usual. I was on a watch henceforth. I would go to medical office everyday and test my blood pressure and pulse rate. There were some other students with me who also face high blood pressure issues. Luckily my blood pressure had dropped to normal, but my pulse was still flying high. But, the doctor said it might be a one off case and let me continue the course. The others were not as lucky and were given the pink slip.

View from Tiger Hill (ref: Das Studio - Darjeeling)

On 26th October we left for our conquest. After a long drive and 3 days of hiking through the Kanchenjunga National Park we finally reached the HMI Basecamp alternatively known as Chowrikhang situated at an altitude of 4380m. I must admit the final stretch to the basecamp was never ending. It’s as if you can see your final goal, but it keeps evading you. In the mountains it’s really tough to estimate distance from one point to another. We reached the basecamp at around 3pm with the advance batch students waiting to receive us. Many advance students were kind enough to help students from our batch with their rucksacks. For the next 2 weeks other than your batch mates and your instructors these are the only faces you will see in the mountains (And ofcourse the guys working in the mess and helping with logistics).

One of the 4 majestic bridges in Kanchenjunga National Park

Enroute to Bakhim

Enroute to Dzongri

Mighty Mountains

The next 10 days at the basecamp consisted of various activities, which included technical training in snow/ice, rock climbing techniques, rescue techniques, etc. We were taken onto the Rathong glacier to implement the techniques we learnt during the open classroom sessions. I think personally, my favorite part of the glacier training was ice climbing. It was a dream come true after whatever I read about it in various mountaineering books. We got a chance to climb walls of sheer blue ice. During the training week at basecamp many students left voluntarily, while some left due to injuries. The final tally was now 48.

Tarn (Mountain Lake)

Headed towards Rathong glacier

Glacier training


Doodh Pokhri Lake (HMI Advance Basecamp)

Selfie at 16000 ft

Gazing into oblivion

Infinite Knot (Buddhist Symbol)

In the mountains you start missing a lot of small things you take for granted in your day to day life. But eventually nothing matters. It's the final goal you need to work towards. There were days when I would question myself, as to 'Why am I doing this?' But deep down, you know you have the will to go through it. In the end it's just a mental battle. On the 10th day at the basecamp our Course Director decided that BMC 298 would attempt the B.C.Roy peak, which is around 17800ft. It was great news for us since this would the first attempt after 4 years. The weather conditions had turned out in favor of the climb. On 11th we head out towards the summit. It was a tiring journey but fruitful. Out of the remaining 48 students, 31 summited the peak that day. 

Summit of B.C.Roy peak - appx. 18000 ft

One the 13th we departed from the basecamp at Chowrikhang and were on our way back to Darjeeling. Two days of hiking included a trip through Dzongri and then Bakhim and finally to Yuksom. There onwards it was a bus ride to the institute. (The return journey was the most challenging for me, since my knees started bothering me and I had to complete the journey in the stipulated time. In times like these painkillers are a blessing.) The final few days at the institute in Darjeeling consisted of outings, competitions and the graduation ceremony.

'By learning to discover and value our ordinariness, we nurture a friendliness toward ourselves and the world that is the essence of a healthy soul.' 
 - Thomas Moore

This journey that started out as an adventure for me, a mere adrenalin rush, soon turned into a wake up call about the reality of life, as I was enveloped by the endless mountains. The opportunity to venture into nature and be separated from social structures (as we know it) was exceptional for me. To be able to gaze into the vast nothingness, introspect and ponder about life in general was truly medicine for my soul. Living in the mountains helps one realize how ordinary and insignificant man is, against mighty nature. You realize the worth of every single breath of air, every small drop of water, of human relationships and respect to all life beings. Life suddenly is in perspective and gradually with time it strikes you realize that whatever our actions may be, whatever our choices may be the truth is that Nature may very well remain without man but Man simply cannot exist without Nature. This understanding is the first step to embracing change, of the mind, body and soul. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Leading Today's Business Organizations

The current business environment is extraordinarily challenging, competitive and dynamic. Companies need young professionals who can make an immediate impact on their organizations and also individually grow as the company is growing. Business knowledge, management & leadership skills are critical assets for success in almost any career. 

A lot of students entering the workforce or people already in the workforce are from non-business backgrounds such as engineering, science, medicine, arts or the finance streams and now find themselves on career tracks where they need to understand and “speak” the language of business fluently. Others are entrepreneurs who need to stay ahead of the curve in order for their business to succeed and grow. In any case, you need the business, management & leadership skills to advance your career to the next level.

In the past, when organizations followed a more pyramid-type structure, leaders were invested with far more formal authority. These leaders could issue directives, which would be funneled down through the various organizational ranks.  As such, the edicts issued by the leadership carried an enormous amount of organizational weight. Today’s organizations, however, are flatter. The degree of formal authority invested with leaders is much lower than before, and, given the modern-day organizational structure, many leaders do not particularly this authority particularly useful. Instead, they have learned to rely more on their own mastery of certain skills, and focus on learning and developing the same.

While different leaders follow different styles of leadership, there are certain common traits that every leader must possess. These include:
  • Communication skills: To speak and write persuasively
  • Interpersonal skills: To listen and hear what people are saying and react in constructive ways (active listening)
  • Conflict-resolution skills: To handle friction and inevitable tensions
  • Negotiation skills: To bring different groups together in order to reach mutually agreeable goals
  • Motivational skills: To align people who may not report to you toward a goal'
  • Decision-making skills: To take decisions in case of deadlock situations or move towards the larger goal
One of the biggest reasons why most people are so intimidated by the prospect of being a great leader is that only a few truly dare to lead. Indeed, taking up the mantle of leading a team of individuals, many of whom are talented, capable and opinionated, may seem like a daunting task for someone with little or no leadership experience. However, it is this willingness to take on a role and responsibility that others shy away from that sets the stage for a effective, powerful and admirable leader.

Most organizations today are desperately seeking such leaders who will not be afraid to act as pathfinders, visionaries and motivators, creating new avenues for growth for themselves, their teams and their organizations. More than ever, the need for good leaders is large and the opportunity great. To capitalize on this opportunity, however, you must first embrace the fact that leadership comprises multiple dimensions. It is a combination of personal characteristics and transformational behaviors that influence positive action in others. 

If you have any questions, comments or would like to learn more about any of the tools or techniques to improve your soft skills please write to us at

For more information on our skill development programs please click here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The growing need for Employability Skills in India

Recently I attended a webinar co-hosted by the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN) and National Skill Development Corporation of India (NSDC) discussing the opportunities in skill development for businesses in India over the next few years. In the one hour presentation they spoke about initiatives, programs and competitions undertaken by the NSDC and how businesses must focus on skill development for a country which will soon have the largest working population in the world. Though the opportunity is great and the platform might seem perfect to tap the commercial potential, the information and numbers raise a bigger issue (and one that was left unanswered in the webinar) that what are the skills that an emerging India needs?

Academic skills and technical skills have often been the core focus of the government and the result has been fairly limited, with minimal increase in opportunity or empowerment. Of late, there has been an gradual shift towards vocational skills, which is definitely a breath of fresh air, for both job-seekers and employers alike. In fact Corporate India, with each passing year, renders the current crop of graduates more and more unemployable. For a country where the working age population will very soon be far in excess of those dependent on them and will continue to do so till 2040, this is a very disturbing statistic. (source: World Bank).  Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head when he said 'India does not have problem of unemployment but that of unemployability'. Hence the focus must undoubtedly be on developing skills that transcend technical or academic capability and help create professionals who are not only ready to face the challenges of a dynamic and competitive business world but also have the flexibility, intelligence and practical skills to sufficiently excel in their respective roles within an organization.

According to the survey, carried out by a number of agencies (and endorsed by the PM’s National Council on Skill Development and the NSDC), the top three most important general skills identified were motivation, reliability and teamwork, while the top three most important specific skills are entrepreneurship, effective communication and use of modern tools and technologies. This is some very important information coming directly from the corporate world and should almost become the tenets of basic skill-based training in India. The importance of the survey results and the focus on developing these skills (both general and specific) cannot be emphasized more, because they have a three pronged effect. 

First, they provide individuals seeking employment with a first hand account of what skills they must possess and, if necessary, develop in order to catch the eye of a potential employer. Of course, recognizing skills and developing them are only primary steps, putting them to practice and creating a habit of learning new skills is the ultimate goal. The onus to do this is not just on the job seeker but also training organizations and businesses to identify innovative methods of developing and teaching these skills. In todays digital age, the use of technology is imperative for educational and vocational institutes to attract the youth and make the learning as enjoyable as possible. Learning happens best when the learner is so engrossed and engaged that he does not realize he is learning. 

Next, by developing these skills individuals are not just molded to excel in corporate or government positions but also develop a sense of innovativeness and creativity. There in lies the hope that we are not just empowering job seekers to achieve career goals but also create a section of individuals that will take the entrepreneurial path, at some point in their careers, and will eventually become job creators. 

Last, through the development of these skills job seekers will find it mush easier to accentuate their core academic and technical skills and employers will find that (a) hiring candidates becomes much easier (b) their investment in training new employees and in turn, attrition rate is lower and, (c) productivity is greatly increased because now corporations can focus less on teaching people how to do work and more on actually assigning them to more complex, diverse projects. Hence, to summarize, the development of these skills greatly improves the chances of (a) getting hired then, (b) staying hired and finally, (c) personal and professional success. Could there be more valuable advice for new graduates and young professionals? I think not.

Here is an info graphic that Last-Bench created almost a year back highlighting the importance of soft skills for job applicants. In fact the development of these skills must become a compulsory module in a lll colleges and universities to ensure graduates receive complete education.

If you have any questions, comments or would like to learn more about any of the tools or techniques to improve your soft skills please write to us at

For more information on our skill development programs please click here.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What makes a great leader?

"Leadership" is a topic that is talked about so much nowadays, it would be safe to say that it's 'in vogue!' Everything you try to do or are doing, you either question yourself or get questioned about whether you're a leader in the particular activity or not. But what really makes a great leader? What separates the 'also rans' from the 'inspiring greats'? What traits or behaviors do great leaders have in common? Can YOU 'learn' how to be a great leader? 

Today, I'm not going to define or explain what  leadership is because there are so many great gurus who have already done so and so many of them who have shown the world by exercising it. Instead, I'll share an experience from my previous job who I thought was a great leader amongst the common folks.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Agile Critical Thinking Webinar on Decision-Making

The Center for Agile Thinking  and iPleaders jointly organized a webinar on 'The Skills You Need to Make Better Decisions in a Complex, Competitive and Dynamic Workplace' conducted by Prof. Anne P. Kreitzberg, Co-founder and Principal at The Center for Agile Thinking. Here is a brief overview and a few stills from the well-received event...

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Last-Bench!: The journey so far and what lies ahead...

Every couple months I ask myself questions like - "How have we been doing as a startup? What is our progress? Are we focussing on the same vision or have we deviated? What should we be doing as we power into the future?". This is when I call for the "SPECIAL" meeting outside work with my partners in crime - Sajid and Venkat, just to discuss these things and ideate with them.

Very recently, instead of me asking this time, someone from the VC community asked me this question and I confidently replied:
"We've been executing projects in the skill development and educational content design areas which has helped us get in revenue and also allowed us to do research towards our larger goal of delivering personalized skill development online."
Having said that, I'm very proud to announce that we've come into an exclusive joint venture with Cognetics Corporation. Both Congetics and Last-Bench! share a common vision and launched The Center for Agile Thinking in India too. The mission is to help businesses achieve their goals by raising the level and quality of decision-making within their organizations. As a team, we hold great experience, subject matter expertise, technology expertise and a network to tap into. We've taken a first stab at our online platform and have began our development activities.

I do believe we're going in the right direction and with the help of my super team and great advisors we are getting closer to our larger goal!

Will keep ya'll updated! 

-Rajeev (@rajeevchhajer)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Last-Bench featured on CNBC Awaaz

In late september, when we signed up for an online 30 minute personal mentoring session with Gozoop's Ahmed Naqvi to help us align our Social Media strategy, little did we imagine we'd end up getting a WHOLE lot more. In fact we were geared up to just listen to what Ahmed had to say and try  and get as many of our questions answered within the duration of the hangout. Hence when we got a call from Ankita Gaba (of Social Samosa, who organized this amazing event) asking if we were willing to have our mentoring session covered by CNBC Awaaz, our response (quite understandably) was a resounding YES! It's not everyday that you (a) get picked by CNBC Awaaz as the startup they want to cover for a entrepreneurial feature (b) welcome the immensely knowledgable Ms. Gaba to your office (c) get your strategy fixed by Mr. Naqvi. A one-of-a-kind triple whammy! :D 

Of course our joy soon translated into a massive bout of nervousness by D-Day morning and it was a rush against time to ensure we got our message perfected for the viewing audience. But more than the TV feature, it was important that we didn't lose focus from the objective of this exercise - to learn, get ideas and tips from Ahmed himself and understand how we can leverage the massive opportunity that Social Media provides small companies like ours. A few cups of coffee, lots of notes and brainstorming were enough for us to feel confident about getting past this exciting yet important day.

In retrospect, the could not have gone any better. We really accomplished all the we had intended to. Ms. Gaba too was kind enough to build on Ahmed's invaluable, precise and thought-provoking advice and help us get some expert tips to start doing the right things to gain momentum on Social Media. The interview with CNBC, as expected, gave us much needed mileage and the opportunity to be discovered not just from a local, but from a national perspective as well. We've heard some great feedback and inputs from friends and family who saw us on TV (one even refusing to believe he was seeing us on TV and had to change the channel and go back to ensure it wasn't a 'lack-of-sleep induced hallucination' :D) and also happened to generate a lot of interest from students, professors and educational institutions curious as to how we can help them achieve their goals. 

We'd like to end by saying a big than you to Ankita Gaba for providing us with all the help, support and the opportunity, Ahmed Naqvi for his great insights, advice and incredible patience and CNBC Awaaz for choosing us amongst the many other startups to be featured on their show. Needless to say, we're over the moon :)

Here is the CNBC awaaz video and pics from the event:

Click here for pictures of the mentoring session & CNBC Awaaz

For all of our friends outside of India:
If you wish to view the CNBC video, kindly send us an email on with the subject as "CNBC VIDEO LINK" and we'll be glad to share with you the link for the video (with english subtitles).