“Are you feeling disillusioned, de-motivated, depressed?” asked Phil, sensing that I was in one of my gloomy moods. Phil is the HR veteran who had sidestepped the rat race long ago.
“You have just described my whole life,” I sighed.
“So what’s the problem? I mean, you should be used to it by now.”
I glared at Phil for rubbing salt in my wounds. “Pass me the salt,” I said, biting fiercely into my sandwich.
“Apply for training,” Phil said in a sympathetic tone. “It is the best survival tool, though this wild card is generally used a little later in the career, when a visit to the psychiatrist becomes inevitable. But you seem to have hit the spot quite fast.”
“It doesn’t happen to all. Look at Mr A, or Mr X or any of the other managers. Do they look stressed?” I asked gloomily.
“You will be surprised to hear some their histories. Our Superboss escaped the looney bin by a whisker,” said Phil. But such levity failed to pacify me.
“Jokes apart, I feel I do not have it in me to get ahead,” I said.
“Ahead of what? And I am not joking. All of us start with this innocent get-ahead, go-get-it philosophy. It is when we have travelled some distance that we realize that we don’t know where we want to go. Finally it comes to a point where only retirement-point is left as the goal.” That was also the crux of Phil’s philosophy, but was starkly different from that of Mr A, and I said so.
“Mr A wants to become regional head, and even a CEO in time. He is clear about his goals,” I said vehemently.
“So what stops you from setting those goals for yourself?” asked Phil.
“That is where the problem is with me. Those goals do not attract me now. And that is why I feel I am not in the right place,” I said.
“They did once, and that’s why you joined. But what happened then?” he asked. I remained silent, so he continued, “Then you saw what it was all about. Earlier you had only a fantasy about what being a CEO was, right?”
Phil could be a good psychiatrist, but did he have any solutions, I thought. “So what should I do?” I asked.
“That’s for you to decide’” he deadpanned in his usual, infuriating way.
“I think I could do with a promotion,” I said to divert him to a happier topic.
“Promotion is given to people with little skill or specialization, or who are generally useless, so that work does not suffer. Promoting less smart people also keeps the bosses reassured that there is no challenge to their position. Do you qualify?” he asked.
Phil was determined to keep me depressed. I think in the world of ‘not-in-the-rat-race’ types, this technique is equivalent of brainwashing to get converts.
“People do get ahead by sheer hard work and dedication, and I will stick to that path. Let us see where it leads to,” I replied, determined not to get into a negative frame. Phil smiled and offered to get me another cup of coffee.
I was undecided about another cup, but my decision was made when Grey, the Assistant to Admin came stomping in, and Phil ordered another round of coffee. It must have been something to do with the bitterness of winter for we were handed another disgruntled element.
“I will go slow from now,” declared Grey with his usual ferociousness.
“But you are already slow,” remarked a confused Phil. It was not meant to be a slight – Grey was proud of his ‘independence’.
“I…er..will go slower,” replied Grey, after giving the matter some thought.
“Nobody will notice the difference,” Phil pointed out.
“I don’t care,” said Grey, “I am a rebel.”
“What is the problem,” I asked.
“The problem is the absence of any opportunity for getting ahead in this organization. It saps the spirit. No enthusiasm. As if we did not matter. No career planning. I could list the problems, but where are the solutions?” grumbled Grey, putting four spoons of sugar in his coffee.
“David is having the same problem,” remarked Phil, pointing towards me. I was about to protest, but Grey cut me short – “You should also go slow,” he said.
That my problem was not an absence of promotion, and that I did not understand what ‘going slow’ would mean in my situation were difficult concepts to explain and I struggled for words.
“I am not looking for promotion,” I began.
“And promotion is not looking for you,” snapped Grey. “Soapy is going to get it this year.”
Now that was a news. And it jolted me. Soapy, an intern till the other day, and three years junior to me, about to be promoted? “They can’t promote him,” I said.
“Why not. Who stops them?”
If I thought things could not go worse, they just had. On one hand was my philosophy that promotions, career graph, rat race did not matter to me, and on the other was this clear shock of hearing that Soapy could become my boss – or at least a senior. What would my wife say, was an irrelevant thought that crossed my mind. Now that thought would have to be analysed too, at some later hour. The question that my mind framed for this bit of additional angst was – ‘was I working for the fear of comments of the better-half or for my own beliefs’.
I looked at Phil, who was observing me carefully. “Was your side-stepping the rat race by choice, or was it by some similar circumstance?” I asked.
“Ouch,” said Phil, “That was a hit below the belt. You will have to fight it out boy – you are not ready for side-stepping.” He sounded like an Indian guru, who is reluctant but willing to let a favorite disciple go back to his humdrum life. “Ask yourself what Mr A would have done in this situation,” he said.
“Done? Mr A had ruined that lad from Finance back in the nineties,” recalled Grey.
“Ralph the swine?” asked Phil.
“The same thug. And he was the nephew of the then CEO. Beat him at his own game, Mr A did,” Grey said happily. Grey likes dog-fights, both on streets and in the office. He says his grandchildren also like to hear stories of office dog-fights. I have met his grandchildren, and I can believe him on that.
“What happened?” I asked, forgetting my own woes.
“That Ralph was all pally with the GM and threw his weight around. He was given a long rope since he was The Nephew, you see. He was junior to A, and was going to be promoted. Disaster faced A right in his face, but did he feel faint, weak in the knee? You bet not,” said Grey, warming up the story, pepping it up a bit. But it was Phil who carried the story forward.
“It was a period when the new networkable-Pentium computers arrived on the scene and our company was developing a software on that platform. It was a good idea, especially for small businesses and chain-stores. We were on the final lap, competition only a little behind us. The tech team had it all sewn up and the thing was ready to be presented to the CEO. Ralph was deputed to present the outcome in a big meeting on behalf of all. Mr A was to be left twiddling his thumbs, arranging for the snacks at the meeting.”
The next bit was too good for Grey to let go, and he stepped in – “Mr A planned the move nicely. Just before the presentation what does he do? He goes to the GM and tells him that he had lost the only copy of the code, and the entire developing had to be done again. That almost killed the GM, and got Mr A murdered. After lot of hot words, which I had heard then, and I still remember, but would never repeat in a month of Mondays, Mr A had the audacity to suggest that he might just remember the key parts that might put the thing back on track again. But he needed to make the presentation himself.”
“Blackmail!” I exclaimed.
“That is exactly what the GM said, to which I think Mr A may have nodded slightly. Mr A also hinted that in the unfortunate event of his being turned out of the company, a competitor was willing to hire him. Mr A also asked for the best advice from the GM under the circumstances,” said Phil, and laughed heartily.
“Mr A had developed parts of that thing,” said Grey, “And was right in plugging the GM and that Nephew.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“The presentation went off well, and in an inside deal, Ralph was promoted and sent to another zone, while Mr A was promoted here. An unfortunate development was that Mr A was disillusioned of the technical job, and converted into a manager – almost overnight. He hasn’t looked back since,” Phil concluded the story.
“Hardly ethical,” I said aghast, for it shed new light on the character of Mr A.
“And the Nephew? He was right, I suppose?” asked Grey hotly. I thought of the ‘Two wrongs do not a right make’ and such other stuff, but kept quiet for the audience was solidly behind the tactics of Mr A. Instead, I said that the solution presented in the story does not apply in my case, for I have not done anything that I could blackmail anyone with. And on that sobering note we dispersed.
It was a few days later, during a meeting to review customer relations (read agent relations, since we operate through them), that Soapy was given an opportunity to present his plan for significantly decreasing cost of customer-communication. Actually it was a superficial plan based on the idea of using SMSes and social-networking sites, all hyped up to look impressive.
Midway through the presentation, Fred, the Finance Manager, asked Soapy to give some concrete figures. The latter tried to bluff his way through, saying a study would have to be made to arrive at estimates, but going by similar trends in our industry, the cost benefit would be significant. To this Fred took umbrage – it was the type of jargon he used almost daily, and he saw through it immediately. “The presentation is meaningless if it does not deal in any specifics,” he grumbled.
Now Soapy was not a Nephew, and Superboss waited for the lad to save his skin – through bluff or otherwise. At this precise point I remembered that on our very own website we have a report by a consulting house which gives specific figures on that very subject. It would have taken few seconds for Soapy to open the site on his laptop and read out the figures, thus warding off this challenge.
I was about to point this out, from the dark corner where I sat, when suddenly the words of Phil came to my mind – “What would Mr A have done?”
It was an easy question to answer – Mr A would have done nothing. In fact it would not have crossed the mind of Mr A that anything was needed to be done by him. But, said my conscience, I was not Mr A. Another part of my brain said, “You are not Soapy’s assistant. It is not your job to get him out of the mess he has got himself into.”
During the time that I struggled with the morality of the issue, events were moving fast. Fred’s hostility had increased, Soapy’s self confidence had dented and he had confessed, under duress, that he had not thought of making concrete assessments, financially. The mirthless laughter of Fred exposed Soapy to be a sham. Soapy was asked to make practical proposals in the future and the meeting moved to the next item on the agenda.
The meeting dampened all prospects of an early promotion of Soapy, Grey told me later. It did bring give me some vicarious pleasure, but a part of me rebelled against this baser instinct. To this day I am not sure whether I should have spoken up or not. Nor am I clear whether my intervention would have helped Soapy – in fact he would have seen it as an attempt from my side to show off at his expense.
But of one thing I was sure – the talismanic question, “What would Mr A have done?” did play a role in my life. I should give careful attention to this phenomenon, besides studying the methods of Mr A carefully, I told myself once again.