(This article was published by Harvard Business Review)
Sudarsan is a man I met at a skills training center for below-poverty-line Muslim girls in Southern India’s Nizamabad district two weeks ago. He is a 55-year-old government clerk, who has with his wife over the years adopted 37 children. Some are orphans; other fled or were abandoned by their families. He is the area’s unofficial contact point for — and caretaker of — lost children.
But Sudarsan now faces a problem. His girls and boys are growing up and some are already over 18. Having stretched his income as far as he can to raise them, he must now help them transition to adulthood, to ensure that they are educated, employed and financially independent. To do that, he needs to negotiate with members of the community, local politicians and visitors who might give his children opportunities.
His strategy, which I saw first-hand during my visit to Nizamabad, involves a delicate balance of authenticity and persuasion — and it’s one from which anyone who needs to negotiate in professional life can learn. Here is how Sudarsan advocated for his children, in three steps.
Believe. As I mingled with the staff and other visitors to the training center, Sudarsan hung back at first. Focused on his end goal, he was silently observing and identifying the people in the room who could potentially help him and what he might be able to offer in return. But he waited to be introduced. My host for the day, a member of the Indian Parliament representing Nizamabad, knew Sudarsan and called out to him. He then brought him over to me and praised his work. Sudarsan let the MP establish his credibility, which encouraged me to listen to and believe what he had to say.
Bond. Sudarsan was also clearly prepared for our meeting. He told me that 22 of his children were young girls, fiercely independent and full of hope, as he and his wife had brought them up to be. But now he worried they would end up on the streets. He knew, from the MP’s introduction of me and our initial conversation, that this would strike a chord with me. I think that young girls in economically deprived classes of the Indian society represent a massive undiscovered talent pool. Having established this intellectual bond, he and I kept talking and discovered more commonalities, prompting me to start thinking about what we might achieve together.
Bridge. In the afternoon I went to one of the local government hostels, where girls sleep no less than 48 to a room. Sudarsan was also there, engaged, focused and sometimes acting as interpreter. At the end of the day, a young girl sat next to me and readily told me that at 18 she had fled a marriage arranged by her parents because she had wanted to study. She was 22 now, at university, and had never returned to her family. I smiled and told her that I had a similar life story. People overestimate how distinct their lives are, so finding others with overlapping biographies can seem like a miracle. Research confirms that we seek — and are gratified by — these bridges, these emotional connections. I certainly felt that way. The young girl was of course surprised at what I had told her but we continued to chat about opportunities for her higher education; eventually, even our speech and body language started to match. At the end, I asked what she wanted from life. “I want to study so that I can help the poor,” she told me, “just like daddy.” And with that, she pointed to Sudarsan, who was watching us from the corner.
Miniya Chatterji is a senior manager and global leadership fellow at the World Economic Forum and the founder of The Stargazers Foundation.