Meet a Member: Navjot Singh
Continuing with our feature series on the members of TiE Boston, we spoke with TiE Boston Charter Member, Navjot Singh, Senior Partner and former Managing Partner of Boston office at McKinsey & Company, about his journey and what led him to TiE.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up in Delhi, India and went to IIT Delhi only a few miles away from my house. After graduating, I came all the way to the University of Minnesota to get my PhD in chemical engineering. My dad at that time said, “Son, do you really think you want to do this? Do you want to go to a place that’s going to be so cold?” I said, “Oh, that’s no problem at all. Dad.” Of course I had a wake up call after my first winter!!
There, I met my wife, who was in pharmacy school at that time and we got married shortly after. After receiving my PhD, I worked for GE in corporate research for almost seven years.
The dot-com boom was happening and I got passionate about starting something on my own and got something going. McKinsey was holding more of a venture capital day at that time, which we competed in. And then, the dot-com bust happened. So my idea of being an entrepreneur got parked. Since McKinsey was hosting it I said, “Hmm. What is this place?” I didn’t know much about the firm, but decided to apply. I may have been among the first few to apply on the internet, because the internet was just getting going at that point.
Luckily I was hired and 20 years later, here I am at McKinsey. The reason why I’m very passionate about entrepreneurship is that it’s a highly entrepreneurial place. Our values are about serving clients, driving sustainable, meaningful impact, and you do that through great people. You are literally working with amazing CEOs all around the world, amazing leaders all around the world, amazing entrepreneurs all around the world.
The clients you choose to focus on, the topics you choose to work on need to be shaped, need to be defined and developed, so you are always an entrepreneur. I have built a reputation for entrepreneurship within McKinsey in terms of learning and crafting new areas of impact. I grew up within the McKinsey walls in New York. I was there for 12 years before moving to Boston nearly eight years ago. I became engaged with TiE’s New Jersey chapter during my time in New York. TiE is a special group.
I’d love to hear a bit about your journey as an intrapreneur and what that has meant to you.
Let me share both the GE side of things and the McKinsey side of things. At GE, I learned to be an inventor with over 20 patents but being an inventor is not enough. You need to really think through where business opportunity is, where exactly you drive impact and how. If you want to be an intrapreneur, you need to A: bring the same amount of energy an entrepreneur does and be able to energize others around you around your mission. I often use the words fearlessness and shamelessness. If you fail, you pick up and do something else. You should not “not” take a swing. There’s value in declaring some bold goals because then it puts pressure on you to go accomplish them. B: there’s an interface right in the middle of different sectors of a company, where the technologies don’t know the business side and the business side don’t know the technology side, and that is the interface I chose to make a living at. My life at McKinsey is at intersections. It is at an intersection of engineering, medicine, government and business. The reason I’m still at McKinsey is because I’m learning every day. There’s not a single boring day. When that stops, I’ll be gone.
Can you share some personal stories of Inspiration?
One of my biggest life events was in 2007, when I attended the Art of Living, meditation class. One of the questions asked was, “if you’re stuck in traffic, what do you do?”
Most people say, “Look. I’ll listen to music” or, “I’ll scream, I will call someone.”. After some introspection, my response was, “I’ll solve the problem. Why is there traffic? Why can’t we solve it?”
That was an inspirational moment for me in my leadership style. I now only worry about problems that I can solve, and am not afraid to take on problems that seem daunting and huge. In whatever small form or shape, however big and daunting the problem may be, what’s needed is a first step, and that first step goes a long way.
Can you tell us more about how you became involved with TiE and your experiences with the organization?
Raj Lakhanpal who used to be in the Boston area of TiE opened up the TiE in New Jersey. The TiE New Jersey chapter invited me to give a speech, on where trends are going in India. From there I formed connections with many others and when I moved to Boston good friends of mine were affiliated with TiE. I love hanging out with entrepreneurs, whenever I have time, this is the group I want to spend even more time with.
Considering the journey you’ve been on and your personal growth, what advice do you have for folks who are just starting out, either looking to start their own companies or looking to be intrapreneurs?
Look, it all starts with doing great work. You should be in a profession you really care about and enjoy. Double-down and do great work. I think at times people have this itch, “Oh. Where is my next show? Where is my next job?” All of that will come. Good things will likely happen. But dream big.
Find the right mentors who can help you because you can’t do it all by yourself. I still go back to my thesis advisor who always was a mentor for me. My bosses at GE played a big role in the early stages of my career. I have had several mentors and sponsors during my McKinsey years who have been instrumental in shaping me.
Also, at times, you may need a career change. You shouldn’t be afraid of that. Do not be afraid to make big changes. I believe in the grand reality of growth. You can either fight growth or you can take advantage of it. When you’re in an area that is growing, you’re not fighting against it. I would also suggest having lots of interests. I read a lot, I listen to a lot of podcasts. There are so many amazing podcasts out there, so listen to them and learn from them.
It’s very important to get honest feedback from people. I personally find the idea for a business plan to be totally flawed at an early stage. People spend a lot of time polishing a business plan. When people talk about a business plan, I don’t even look at it. I look at the concepts. I can make a business plan look as good as you want, but it will likely, I can guarantee you, be wrong. They should be spending 90% of the time building/testing the concepts and products with customers.
Also, when you don’t wake up and have the passion for what you’re doing, you should stop doing it.
In light of COVID, how have you seen work change personally? What are some of the things that you hope we keep from this experience? How have you seen your work from home or routine balance shift?
We have of course moved to hybrid work and we will hopefully converge to a new normal at some point. I think the silver lining is that I probably spent so much time with my two sons who are both teenagers. That has been a blessing. In all seriousness, I think the silver lining is flexibility. People can work virtually, they can be hybrid, they can be remote, the flexibility is powerful. The downside is there’s no substitute for in-person connections.
How do you balance the life of entrepreneurship and family?
The first two or three months of COVID was horrible because the balance was broken, but now I’ve come to a new way of balancing. In fact, my goal in life is to exercise every day. I start my formal day at a certain time, 8:00 AM, and I try to end my day at 8:00 PM.
The other trick is not to become a slave to emails. Emails are eating up our lives. I used to take a lot of emails with me into the weekend. Now I’ve drawn a line and said, “No more emails over the weekend.” Those are the few things I’ve done. As an entrepreneur, you can work 24/7 and it will not be enough. You have to draw the line.
The trick ultimately is to be 100% in on what you are doing — both at work and in personal context without too much multi-tasking.
Is there a difference between the daily work routine and the passion of creating something new?
I see little difference. It is ultimately about converging your daily work and your passions. If you are passionate about something, and you can move the needle you should pursue it. If not, stop it. There’s no shame in stopping it. I would say people don’t do enough homework. That’s why I have an affinity for the words fearlessness and shamelessness. Fearless means you are not afraid to take risks and shamelessness means you pick yourself up rapidly if you fail. If you don’t take risks and if you’re not resilient enough to bounce back from those risks, you’re likely in the wrong place.