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A Discussion with Samir Khushalani on How to Build Strong Fundamentals and Establish a Clear Career Path



Samir Khushalani

Samir Khushalani has an extensive background in leading teams on complex functional transformation programs. Samir has held practice leadership roles in Procurement, Supply Chain and Operations at various global management consulting firms.

Samir obtained his undergraduate and a graduate degree in Electrical Engineering, but after completing his studies at Rice University in Houston he decided he did not want to pursue engineering as a profession. Rather, he began working in the area of business consulting and has continued to do so for 25 years, becoming a recognized subject matter expert, and thought leader in the area of supply chain and procurement.

Samir Khushalani is also an active contributor to the community through his involvement on the boards of not-for-profit organizations that support the performing arts and the revitalization of Houston’s natural resources.

How did you get started in your industry?

After graduating from Rice University, the one thing I knew was that I did not want to be a professional engineer but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  Consulting offered diversity in projects, functions, and industries, which I found compelling.  Engineering helped build my muscle around structured thinking and analytical problem solving which I could leverage as a consultant in a variety of different client situations. I also get energy out of working in teams to help drive client impact, and consulting offers you the perfect platform to achieve that.

When launching one’s career, one wants to work with firms that are well established and are big enough to offer the diversity of experiences one seeks. They have the infrastructure to help you build a balanced set of capabilities to be successful for e.g. structured thinking, top-down communication, influencing without authority, listening skills, engaging with clients, facilitation skills, leadership skills and so on. That is what guided me in selecting my first consulting firm when I graduated from school.

What do you do in your spare time? What problem are you currently grappling with?

Consulting is an intense profession. You are working pretty much all the time because you are trying to solve problems that clients are not able to on their own. Most consultants “work hard and play hard”. Breaks, however brief, are necessary, in fact, critical in helping you clear your head during the course of the day.  For me, that source of release is a 3-mile run in the mornings or evenings…in 20 to 25 minutes you get a good workout. It clears your head and recharges you for work.

The second thing I really enjoy is the arts though of course, I don’t get to partake in it every day.  Among the different art forms, I love theater and, in fact, used to volunteer at a local experimental theater company. The theater is such an immersive experience that transports you into the situation that is being enacted on stage. For a couple of hours, you are literally disconnected from the real world which is refreshing.

The problem I am grappling with is really refining my operating model. It is recognizing that there are only so many hours in the day. You need time for yourself. You need time for your family, and you need time for work. How do you balance those multiple demands on your time? If you are not careful, you can very easily get out of balance and that will manifest itself in poor physical or emotional health, compromised relationships, sub-optimal work performance, etc.

What is your most satisfying moment? (in work or your personal life)

The most joyous and fulfilling moment was getting married to my partner. We had been together for 20 years before deciding to get married. It was a wonderful celebration of our companionship and the beginning of the next phase of our lives together. It was truly a culmination of a myriad of joyous experiences that we had jointly shared, and it just felt so right. I never thought I wanted to get married, but taking the marital plunge, if you will, made me realize how poignant it can be and that a marriage certificate does make a difference. It formalizes everything. It increases, in perception if not, in reality, the gravity of what you have together.

What business books, articles, journals, people have inspired you?

I enjoy The Economist. I find it to be a balanced magazine with a global outlook that resonates with me.

I enjoy articles in the Harvard Business Review. They cover a variety of management issues and challenges and are thoughtful and inspiring.

In the functional domain, there is a magazine called Procurement Leaders that I read on a regular basis. I find it to be a good source of insights that gives you food for thought on the future of the function.

What did you learn from your biggest failure?

That every wall is a door. Every time there is a failure, it is an opportunity to learn, to pick yourself up, and move forward, not to wallow in self-pity or become a victim of circumstance. It is pointless to fret about what happened or what could have been. It is far more productive to accept what happened, learn from it, and incorporate those lessons as you move forward.

What are some red flags to watch out for in daily life? (at work or during personal time)

Be mindful of the imbalance that can very easily creep into your life if you are not careful. It is easy to succumb to excess and you risk burnout. You need to be self-aware and recognize the warning signals before it is too late.

What advice can you share with others?

Don’t be a perfectionist about your life.  Be willing to take chances and be comfortable making mistakes. You may not get to your goal in the most direct manner possible and that’s alright. There is a lot of valuable learning in the detours.

I encounter a lot of ambitious folks who are in a hurry. You can’t fast forward. You can’t accelerate experience. Don’t chase success.  It will come to you as long as you are focused on the right thing, which is doing the best job you can with the utmost integrity and commitment.

Finally, define your internal north star and track against it. Make sure that what you are doing is delivering the best impact. Try to bring the best version of yourself to work. At the end of the day, figure out what your intentional legacy needs to be and be very intentional about making it happen.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am an early morning person, so I try to begin work by 7:15. Between getting up and going to work, I also like to take a little bit of time for prayer and meditation. It helps put things in perspective. It is a little bit of time just for myself. Work is, as I said, intense from 7:15 in the morning through lunch into the evening. In the evening, I do like to take a break just to clear my head. That is where that running really helps. If I don’t get to work out, it feels like an incomplete day.  After exercise and maybe an early dinner, I get back to work until about 10:00.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’ll share the trend that excites me and the trend that does not excite me because the answer is the same. It’s the yin and the yang, I suppose.  The trend is digital. I’m referring to gadgets, digital tools, automation, machine learning, blockchain, etc. It’s exciting because it is fundamentally changing the way we work, the way we think, what we do, and how we do it.  Take the smartphone for instance. It is really an external brain, an appendage on which we are totally dependent. It is impacting our ability to remember phone numbers or directions to go from place A to place B because we rely on the smartphone to tell us that.

One’s productivity has increased manifold. There are a number of things you can do in minutes that would take hours or possibly days.  You can check in to your flight, reserve a hotel, pay bills, buy stuff all in a matter of minutes.

On the business front, the use of automation and machine learning has helped democratize knowledge. You can have your doctors remotely seeing patients halfway across the world. You have robots working alongside humans on the shop floor. You have sensors and actuators built into devices that can facilitate preventative maintenance and extend their life. I think all of those are phenomenal and we are at the very start of it all. The pace of change will never be as slow as it is today, and digital is a big driver of that.

What I am least excited about are the unintentional consequences of digital. One of the biggest ones is social isolation. In a paradoxical way, social networking has connected us in an unprecedented way and yet increased our sense of isolation and loneliness. People are able to do a lot of things within the four walls of their houses.  They do not have to step out.

I think the second unsavory consequence is that it has created a sense of self-importance. In other words, this is your world and everyone else is living in it. I think we see that in the day-to-day lives where we see people becoming a little more selfish, knowingly or unknowingly, and are just consumed by everything they do.   A photograph or a recording of every little detail of your personal life creates a sense of self-importance and makes you feel more important than anyone else. I do think that is a very subversive impact of digital.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t take life too seriously. There will be ups and downs. As they say, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” In other words, everything is ephemeral.

What is your favorite quote?

“Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” Oscar Wilde.

It’s all about being your authentic self because if you try to fake who you are, people will see it, smell it, and recognize it, and you won’t be credible.  And candidly, the pressure of trying to be someone you’re not is just draining and such a waste of time.

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