I never did an MBA, but that didn’t stop me from becoming the CEO of a large insurance company in India. My lessons in management didn’t come from business books but from things around me. I try to learn something new from every interaction—from people I meet, animals on the street, or even the weather. What has taught me the most about the workplace and its challenges? Watching street vendors.
Street vendors have existed, survived, and thrived through periods of economic despair. The environment they operate in is dynamic and constantly changing, and yet, with the limited resources they have, you’ll see them whipping up customized dishes, changing their wares to suit the current trends, and excelling at customer service.
It’s pretty much like the workplace—challenging, constantly changing, and urging us to be flexible and resilient. The key here is to observe things around you, to cope with these constant changes, and to reinvent yourself to stay relevant. And that’s exactly what the street vendors do—they adapt, evolve, and finally overcome the challenge, never getting tired of repeating the cycle again.
Here’s how to apply 3 vital street-vendor strategies to your life and career.
Well-known Indian street food that I thoroughly enjoy is a steaming hot vada pav (fried potato dumpling–the vada–placed inside a bread bun–the pav–served with an assortment of chutneys). However, the scorching Indian summers can be a dampener for the vada pav business as all you crave for during that season is a chilled soda or lemonade. On one such hot and sunny day, while on my way to work, I came across a vada pav vendor who had found a tactful solution to this problem. He was serving chilled lemonade along with the vada pav. So now there were two things you can’t resist! It’s then that I realized that he changes the beverage depending on the weather. In the winter and during monsoons, he replaces the lemonade with hot tea.
Similarly, staying relevant and adapting to the conditions around you plays a crucial role in your success at the workplace. As rising leaders, you need to face the changes head-on and adapt to them. It may be a change in the organization structure or your role in a particular project. You need to identify the opportunity in each of those roadblocks, understand what is expected of you, modify your approach, and deliver accordingly.
With the advent of Artificial Intelligence and its rampant integration into our work, we’re constantly fearing redundancy. If you don’t have the skills that the market needs, you’ll probably find it hard to get a job you desire. Street vendors, too, fear the constant changes in the fashion space, for example. They’re constantly rotating their stocks based on the latest trends. Can you imagine walking to the Linking Road market (Mumbai) or Sarojini Nagar market (New Delhi) and not finding those slim pants that your favorite celebrity donned last week?
Likewise, it’s important for you to keep up with what’s new and upgrade your skills to survive the jobs of tomorrow. You don’t have to spend a lot to learn. You can learn from attending seminars, networking with people, reading good magazines and blogs, or taking various courses online.
3. Overcome and Rebound
Street vendors face a significant number of adversities day in and day out. Sometimes they aren’t even certain if they will be able to set up the shop the next morning (what if the weather is really bad?!). And if they haven’t been able to set up shop one day, you’ll see them at their spot the next day, even more, charged to make a good sale and cut back on losses for not being able to set up shop the previous day.
Imagine your project deadline is moved up or your team leads suddenly calls in sick and you have a deadline to meet that day: What will you do? Instead of sulking and blaming the powers that there may be, find a way to make it work. If the deadline has been moved up, recalibrate with the team and move things around as necessary to deliver your work. If your team lead has called in sick, take charge and fill in for her. It may mean working a few extra hours, but isn’t it going to be worth it to prove you are capable? Remember to always expect the unexpected and prepare accordingly.
Your most valuable lessons in managing your work will not come from academic resources. Your experiences teach you what formal education cannot—especially when it comes to coping mechanisms, working on your attitude, resilience, adaptability, drive, or enthusiasm. Look for best practices when you interact with people and try to implement what you learn along the way.