Tag Archives: bosses

From Plato to Bob Dylan, in a day

I was flipping through the employment section of the newspaper when I was interrupted by a cheerful Mr A.

“Boy, why so gloomy?” asked my boss, backslapping me.

I shook my head, trying to avoid a direct answer, but he would have none of it and insisted on knowing the reason for my downcast mood.

“I think the company is going to be wound up, or at least there would be layouts. I see no future here. It’s time to move on,” I blurted out my dark thoughts.

“He, he, he,” he laughed in his rare display of good cheer. “You read the balance sheet or company forecast?”

“Isn’t it obvious? We are losing clients and business. We are not innovating. How long can we stand?” I asked, not taken in by his bravado.

“We survived for the last 30 years not because our balance sheets were good, or because we never lost clients. We survived because of the X factor,” he said. “Not Mr X, X factor,” he added hastily.

I was sure of my facts, and the writing was clearly etched on the wall. I was not likely to fall for the X factor gimmick , and just nodded. My boss realized that it was time for a serious, educative lecture, and began thus:

“What is most important to keep a company afloat?” he asked.

“Capital,” I replied, reluctantly, for I did not wish to get this gloomy lecture started.

“Ah, that is where you MBAs get it wrong. Companies are afloat on Faith. Till investors have faith, capital will flow,” he said.

“And our company instills faith in investors?” I asked derisively.

“My boy, don’t interrupt. Listen. You will agree our company reinvented itself three times in the last thirty years?” he was sounding like Socrates now. I nodded in agreement.

“And in those times, the wolves were at the door?” he asked and I nodded again.

“Are the wolves at the door yet again?” he asked.

This time I thought, but could not come to any definite conclusion. “Maybe,” I said.

“Yes, they have, or no, not yet?” he asked. “For we must be clear about facts,” he added.

“Maybe not just yet, but the day is not far off,” I replied.

“So far so good. How far in the future do you expect our canine friends to pay us a visit?” he asked.

“The point is the world is not the same. There is competition, and turnaround time and opportunity is too small. Reinventing companies today is almost impossible. It is easier to start afresh,” I protested.

“My boy, you did not answer my question. How long do you think the company has for a major crisis to strike,” he asked again, ignoring my comment.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Based on Fibonnaci retracement analysis, about three years, I would say. Subject to some assumptions,” he answered his own question, to his own satisfaction.

“You admit there is going to be a crisis in three years,” I said a little triumphantly.

“No, I said that is what you should say, based on your studies of accounts,” he said. He was being a little deep today.

“And what would you say?” I asked.

“I would not say anything till I come to the bottom of the whole business, till I have explored the question in full,” he replied.

“Are you reading Socratic dialogues by Plato, by any chance?” I asked suspiciously.

“Do not confuse yourself,” he admonished. “Tell me this, what will happen when a crisis strikes?”

“Why the company gets broken down or wounded up real fast. Vultures come in pretty fast to devour the leftovers,” I tried to add a bit of Shakespearean color to what was turning out to be too Socratic to my liking.

“It does nothing of the sort. There are people who have investments in the company. They start thinking. When the management goes to them to ask for financial support, they ask for ‘plan’. And this time, the plan has to be good, and workable,” he said.

“And is there a possibility that the management will be able to come up with a good plan?” I asked, for I felt we were just delaying the inevitable.

“Knowing the company you feel there is no possibility?” he asked. This time it was easy. I shook my head in the negative.

“And so, the invested money, the infrastructure would be allowed to be dismantled?” he asked.

“There is hardly a choice,” I said.

“You mean, there would be no faith. But the faith is there today?”

“There is inertia. There is no spotlight on us as of now,” I said.

“It would be too time consuming to start with an analogy, like Plato would have done,” he said, “and so I would come straight to the point. There are about a hundred companies in a situation similar to ours in our field. None of them have lost faith. And, more important, none of them are going in for ‘re-invention’ just yet. Not all of them must be blind,” he remarked.

This argument interested me. I waited to see what was coming.

“Re-inventing comes with a price – in terms of capital investment and risks. It is done only when it is inevitable. Companies are not closed down – this is not a Hollywood idea of business, this is reality. Here, and this is not how MBAs are taught, the balance-sheet within the minds of big investors matters most. Till the time there is a possibility of a positive balance-sheet, nothing will be ‘written-off’,” he explained.

“But that is not how great companies are run,” I blurted out, before I could check myself.

“Ah, there you reveal yourself,” he said, sounding like Sherlock Holmes now. “Your worry is not whether the company will survive, your worry is whether it will be great.”

I refused to answer that.

“There are few companies that MBA text books feature in their case studies, but ours is not one of them,” he said, “but, like thousands of them out there, we will not be the one that will shut down. Or become a case study.”

“And we will come up with a plan, when required?” I asked.

“Sure, like all others will, at that time. The answers, at the time, would be blowin’ in the wind,” he remarked with finality in his voice.

Sudden shift to Bob Dylan zapped me. But the satisfied look on his face was strangely reassuring. I put down the employment section of the paper, and picked up ‘page-3’. No use fretting till the time when our canine friends give us a visit, I thought. I looked at Mr A, who had started a game of Scrabble on the net, and wondered whether managers like him are made or born.



The turnaround

The summer months dragged on like some old case, like a relative who habitually overstays his welcome.

The air-conditioner in the office gave more sound than relief and Mr A prodded on with his work. He was neck deep into a report that had to be submitted ‘before today.’

The CEO at the Headquarter had changed, and like all new CEOs, was bent on turning the company around. And, like all the CEOs before him, wanted the branches to submit their ideas on how this could be done. Superboss, our branch head and an old hand in dealing with new CEOs, did what he knew was to be done in such cases – he asked Mr A, his man-Friday to make a report.

Now Mr A did have all the old reports in his computer, and it would have been easy for him to recycle any of those reports. But he did not.

“We must be honest in what we do,” he admonished me when I suggested the easy way out. “I will rewrite the entire thing again from my memory,” he declared.

That statement confused me slightly. Was it going to be just a test of memory? I got the answer soon enough.

Superboss called a meeting to get opinion of all the managers regarding the report in question. Normally this meeting happens before the task is assigned to Mr A, which becomes one of the decisions of the meeting, but this time, perhaps with the intention of being original, the sequence had been changed slightly. In fact, as it turned out, it was reversed entirely. Mr A made a presentation of his ‘final’ report, and the other managers were left with the creative task of sounding original while agreeing.

Mr A began his speech with a preamble. I have found people generally do this in summers, or when they do not have much to say.

“Our new CEO is a man of vision. He has decided to take on the challenge of the times, and take the company out of the morass that it finds itself in. Having successfully charted the fortunes of five companies in his twenty year long career…..”

I thought Mr A had forgotten that the CEO was not among those present, and the attention of the group wavered. But I was wrong. It was only later that I realized that his opening remarks formed the part of the document that was sent to the CEO for his attention.

Anyway, after what seemed like ages, Mr A came to more ‘substantive’ part of his presentation.

“Our clients want a platform that cuts across the numerous technologies and media and integrates seamlessly with the social networking sites. It must be an online system, working on the power of cloud computing. It must be hardy enough to withstand the challenges of the time, and yet simple enough to be useful to the meanest of the company employee. It must address to the needs of the small business, who are the bulk of our clients, and must be able to update its data automatically through the net….”

And so on for about a quarter of an hour. The gist was, we wanted a software that did all that we were supposed to be doing. And since the creation of such software was a centralized job, it would have to be undertaken by the Headquarter.

There was a round of relieved table thumping, but as expected, a fly decided to invade the sanctity of the ointment.

Mr X spoke up. “What the HQ wants is a clue on what the clients want,” he said offensively. There is no love lost between Mr A and Mr X, but the former kept his cool.

“Exactly what Superboss told me to do. If you recall, I have highlighted the fact that in this age of computerized customization of client-relationship, no one has the time for snail paced responses. As you can see from my presentation, the exact need of the client and the solution is highlighted,” replied Mr A, stressing on the word exact.

That impressed Superboss. He knew that the report was passably all right, and had a hunch that he did not have the quality manpower to better it. A good manager is one who realizes the limitation of his resources, as also the need of the hour.

“I think A’s report captures the essence of what is required. A, mark a copy to X for further comment that he would like to make, and then put it up to me by today afternoon. We must not delay the matter further, for CEO was very clear that he wants action not words,” said Superboss, and it was curtains on the meeting.

The report reached the table of Superboss by next afternoon, without any further additions by Mr X, who corrected the grammar somewhat on page numbers 2 and 3, thereby distorting the meaning somewhat. The report then travelled to the HQ via the internet within seconds. It has been months since the mail delivery was confirmed but we have not heard anything further on the topic so far. We can only presume that the HQ is studying the report ‘in depth’ and will evolve a ‘strategy for implementation that is appropriate for the needs of the time, keeping in mind the urgency of the matter.’

The summer yielded reluctantly to mild Indian winters, bypassing the monsoons this year. The air-conditioner in our office continued to whizz ineffectively – it did no harm even in winters, and we were so used to its whizzing, that we did not really want to turn it off.



The day of enlightenment

Nobody knew who had floated the idea of calling the yoga Guru to the office for a de-stressing, spiritually enhancing course, but it was certain that no one admitted to being the father of the idea.

The Guru, when he arrived, did not inspire confidence, or spiritual or peaceful thoughts.

When the overweight, shrewd-looking, shifty-eyed Guru arrived with half dozen disciples, including one pretty young thing in tow, the top management glanced at each other furtively and bowed.

Since the decision for the course on spiritual upliftment of the branch managers was ultimately taken by Superboss, it had to be right. Since the Guru was finally approved by Superboss, he had to be perfect, and deserved reverence.

All work for the day was suspended, all meetings cancelled. The environment had to peaceful and non-materialistic. The Guru was costly, and it was in the interest of the company to utilize the benefits of his wisdom to the maximum possible extent.

“X will sit near that girl,” murmured Mr A sotto-voice, “he is hardly going to have too many spiritual thoughts today.”

I glanced at Mr X, and knew Mr A was right. Though Mr X was the arch-rival of my boss Mr A, and in the past there have been skirmishes in which the two have charged each other with crimes they did not commit, in this instance, the facial expression of Mr X gave him away. He was positively smitten by the pretty disciple, and seemed to want a private discourse from her.

The conference hall was converted into the meditation centre, and for once, the huge chair at the head of the table was occupied by the Guru and not Superboss. The later seemed to be miffed with this, and it was evident he had not foreseen his demotion. He glared at Mr A, who was heading admin for the time being, for not thinking ahead and arranging for two huge chairs at the head of the table. Superboss sullenly sat at one of the smaller chairs, and had his first brush with spirituality – how to soothe a wounded ego without throwing a tantrum.

When everyone had settled down in strict accordance of seniority, the Guru surveyed the scene haughtily and began his discourse with an Aum.

That was the only Sanskrit word to be used that day. After the Aum, the Guru began in clipped English, trained no doubt during his earlier avatar as a corporate hunk. Though I have not researched the background of the Guru, it is my belief that he must have been a marketing guy, and would have realized that Guru-dom can be a lucrative consultancy service for corporate clients. And he was right in his assessment. We were paying him handsomely for the day.

From that point onwards, it was all downhill. The Guru harangued us for hankering after material gains and not devoting sufficient time for really important things in life. Like, laughter. Not that the Guru practiced what he preached – he sat all annoyed and bitter and gave a long discourse on laughter. Mr X tried to implement the instruction in right spirit. He first smiled at the pretty disciple, and then, to make it more authentic, laughed out loud.

That disturbed the Guru, who changed the subject and for the next hour spoke on the need for controlling our basic nature. Discipline, he said, was key to a balanced life. All the while he kept looking at Mr X with barely concealed hostility. Not that it had much of an effect on Mr X, who kept smiling at the disciple, oblivious of the consternation he was causing to the Superboss, who seemed to have divined the cause of irritability in the Guru.

And as if that was not enough, Mr X decided to get a clarification.

“Um, sir, I mean Guruji,” he began, “is it not necessary to let oneself go, at least once in a while, to let our nature take its own decisions, so that we are free of bondages of the mind. I read Osha said so.” With that he looked at the disciple for approval.

It is not clear what irritated the Guru more – name of Osho, the question or that glance towards his gorgeous disciple.

With barely concealed hostility, Guru answered: “That is the sort of muddle headed thinking one expects in a place driven by greed and base instincts. I find the aura of this company reeking with self-serving and petty souls, who must meditate hard to overcome their limitations of soul and spirit.”

I do not know whether that answered the question or not, but that was what Mr X got by way of elucidation. I cannot say I understood it, but it seems Superboss did, and he nodded his head vigorously and glared at Mr X. Mr X looked expectantly towards the disciple for further clarification, but was met with a cold stare. It was then that he realized that he had blundered and scored a spiritual self goal.

Keen observer that he is, my boss, Mr A decided it was time he intervened.

“Swamiji, you have opened our eyes. How divinely right you are in your grasp of the situation. If we can but implement but a fraction of what you say, much of our miseries will vanish. May I take the liberty to propose that we conclude our morning session and proceed for lunch, swamiji?”

Superboss looked at Mr A approvingly. Swamiji looked at Mr A approvingly. The pretty disciple looked at Mr A approvingly. In fact all of us, with the notable exception of Mr X, looked at Mr A approvingly. Personally I was happy to escape the difficult path of spiritual upliftment.

At lunch I excused myself from attending the later session, on a pretext of urgent work, and Mr X was sent on an errand that Superboss suddenly remembered.

The next day, a happy Mr A remarked that the Guru was good and meaningful, and Superboss had the right idea of calling him. Some of us, he added, need to look within ourselves more and cleanse themselves.

When I asked him what the second session was all about, he said he had unfortunately dozed off due to heavy lunch and did not get to listen much of it. One thing I must point out about my boss – he knows when he does not need to lie. And to that extent, keeps his conscience sparkling clean.



So you think you cannot live without mobile? Think again…

You can live without your mobile phone. Yes, believe me you can. Don’t look at me like that – remember till about ten to twelve years back that none of us had a mobile, and we are doing ok, thank you. But now every Tom, Dick and his dog has a mobile, and feels incomplete without it.

Consider these facts:

  • The one thing people want to have if marooned on a desert island, is a mobile. Earlier it was a member of the opposite gender (remember The Blue Lagoon? Now, if there would be a remake it would be called ‘Girl and a Mobile’ or a ‘Boy and a Mobile’.)
  • More people in India are having mobile phones in their homes than running water or toilets. (I do not know how a mobile phone can substitute for these essentials, but it is true, I am not making this up.)

I have multiple grouse against the mobile phone, and shall systematically list them now for your kind consideration. Put your phone on the silent mode, and please pay attention – it may save your life.

It rings at the most inappropriate times. I have seen a bridegroom (and not just in a commercial) taking a call in the middle of his marriage ceremony. I did not ask him later, out of shyness, what happened during the wedding night, but I am sure his cell records would show that he hardly slept.

It will ring while you are driving, and persistently. How does it figure out that you are on the wheel, beats me. And it is easy to say that one must not take a call while driving, or that you should park your car on the side and then take the call. What with traffic these days, there is no ‘side’ to park on, even if you assume that the other drivers would let you change the lanes.

I think I need not list the awkward moments when the phone rang in my life – it would be too revealing and embarrassing – but I just wish to draw your attention to the nuisance value of the gadget. (Some people that I know might have to list out the moments in their lives when it is not ringing. My dear friend Senthil, the poor TV Newsman is one of them.)

The most serious concern I have against it is that it has made me a twenty four hour slave to the office. The regime of the bosses used to end at 5.30 pm sharp, in the good old days (or any other time schedule that you followed). But now, there are no excuses for not being available 27×7. Woe betides the junior whose phone gets discharged or is on the silent mode, ever.

The sad part in the whole affair is that it has ended the reign of the Free Will. It has ended the concept of choice, of individual opinion. There is no question that you will have to have a mobile phone, and that when it rings, you will HAVE to receive the call.

The medium, they say, is the message. Mobile phone is so possessive that the wives seem liberal and freedom-loving compared to them. You can spend hours on it, speaking to a friend, but imagine what happens when this same friend drops in. You make him sit in the drawing room, with a cup of tea, and are to the balcony, taking on the phone! Luckily, the friend does not mind, for he too is on the call.

You are led to believe that the phone will save you when you are in trouble. Totally untrue. Suppose you are stuck under a rubble just after an earthquake. Believe me, the phone will be out of the reach. Or even if it is with you, the networks will be down. Why? Simply because of the mobile towers – they would have fallen with the buildings, you silly thing!

In fact the mobiles are leading to serious accidents and fatalities almost daily. Drinking and driving was safer than being on a phone while driving, but we all do it. We daily read of the cases of people being run over by TRAINS, because the people crossing the rail tracks were too busy on their phones. (I hope this happens just in India – but here it does.) And we have not begun speaking about the health hazard from the radiations – the mobile industry sees to it that no clear opinion is formed about the matter. With the increasing number of incidents of cancer in society in the recent years, I would not be surprised if the culprit is the high exposure to mobile radiations.

I do not know how the mobile phone is aiding in building up relationships, but I suspect lot are being broken due to them. Cell phone records (both in the mobile set and with the cell company) are deadly, and not only to the criminals and the crooks.

Give a mobile to a child – and watch the graph of his grades go down like a ski slope. Do not give the child his mobile, and watch your popularity go down on the same slope. Just try to extract a teenage girl from the grip of this beast, and put her onto something useful like, reading a book, maybe, and you will realize that the days when parents were the king are long past.

Now it is only the brave hearts, the adventurous and the rebels – people like neo-hippies – who can dare to experience the pure living and high thinking life without the mobile, who can breathe in the fresh air, consciously and knowingly and who can look at the sunrise and the sunsets at the beaches. They can even dance and get drenched in the rains and not worrying about their phone. The blasted thing leaves you with no choice but to believe in God, or with the hope that there will be a day when some newer technology would kill this beast.



In praise of Inefficiency

Inefficiency is not a difficult concept to defend, given its widespread prevalence. However, it has suffered from a lot of bad press. Moreover, its chief rival, efficiency, has cornered glory far exceeding its worth. Before we deconstruct the myth of ‘Efficiency, the good guy’, a disclaimer – I have nothing against efficiency in moderation; it is super-efficiency that I am wary of.

Now let us consider some facts:

  1. The highly motivated and super-achievement period of the Cold War was marked by a race for complete annihilation of life as we know it. Great milestones were achieved in the research of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. No one really understood the sense behind Mutual Assured Destruction, but, my point is, such destructive capability would not have been possible without a high degree of efficiency.
  2. Then there was this race for bringing the under-developed world under your sphere of influence by setting up blood thirsty dictators or by starting civil wars. The entire terrorist industry was created, funded and nurtured in the era. Again, no one doubts the commitment and the efficiency of the foreign services of the ‘great’ powers in creating these monsters.
  3. There was also this race to space, moon and mars – that led to the cluttering of the immediate surrounding with rocket junk. Somehow sense has prevailed (due probably to lethargy and inefficiency of our generation of leaders) and there is a ‘need-based’ funding to research in outer space.
  4. The ‘soft power’ concept gave us horrendous Hollywood movies and the rockstars. It destroyed a lot of beautiful art forms throughout the world. I remember wondering in my younger days, why would any Hindustani speaking person waste time on Michael Jackson and Madonna, when beautiful ghazals, old Hindi songs and classical music were available. Now of course the question has become moot. The trend has culminated in torturous sequels of Indiana Jones, Terminator and Rambo and in Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Poetic justice. Again, the point is, the super efficient ‘Western’ juggernaut killed the heritage and culture of much of the rest of the world.
  5. Coming to the economic and advertising part of the ‘multi-national’ phenomena, what has the world really gained out of it all? Coca Coal, Avis jeans, Colors of Benetton, Zara, Ray Ban, Mercedes and an armament industry that has institutionalized bribery? The very things without which we (the rich) cannot imagine the world now.
  6. If we continue to move backwards into history (let’s get over it first), we are first hit the ‘high achievement’ periods of Second World War, the Inter-War period and the First World War. You would find the awesome inventions like the Atom bombs, aerial bombing, trench warfare and machine guns, in reverse chronological order. Further back, we are into the colonial era, when the ‘progressive’ European powers destroyed all the indigenous cultures around the world, bringing misery and famine of astonishing dimensions.
  7. Let’s forget the big picture and get a little personal. How many times have you experienced the fact that not having done a task saved the day? I have, on numerous occasions. Most problems, I have noticed, resolve themselves with time – our unnecessary meddling aggravates the situation in most of the cases. I could, but will not, give hundreds of personal examples to support this. Personally I am convinced of minimal intervention in the working of fate – I, for one, would never provoke it by acting smart.
  8. The best way to win a girl is to be a bumbling idiot, and say sorry. It pleases the girls, and eliminates the ‘efficient’ competition real quick. In support of this, I present the fact that the best girls are married to the biggest idiots around, and that winning the sympathy of a girl is the easiest way to her heart. My simple advise to the youngsters looking for soul mates – just get yourself injured (by sheer stupidity- and this part is important), and you will find a maiden to rescue. Rest is up to you – your chances would depend on how dumb-headed you are. If you are naturally disadvantaged by having some brains, send it for a long vacation.
  9. For husbands, stupidity works wonders. Just take my word for it. I shall not elaborate, for then I would be revealing secrets that my wife may get to know. Lest I am accused of presenting a gender-biased view, let us also remember the blonds. They are the most successful sub-species of homo sapiens. And how did they win the world – by projecting and maintaining an image of dumbness.
  10. In office, anybody can notice that the least efficient, the least productive of the staff are the happiest; they get the best training, the least work and fastest promotions. They cultivate the bosses better, create little hindrance to the half-baked projects with their nagging doubts, do not pose a threat to their superiors by acting smart in the meetings (in fact they give an ego boost to the bosses by talking silly and getting themselves corrected all the time) and are usually not to be blamed for any disaster – for everyone knows that they do nothing.

I know many would still not be convinced by these facts – their brains would, in all likelihood, be producing counter arguments and facts to reject this thesis. They are most welcome to listen to their brains, but I would also like to draw their attention to their hearts. Just listen to what your heart is saying.

Let me marshal some more arguments, as a last ditch attempt to convince you. I shall now quote Bertrand Russell (not a man you could shake a finger at, in terms of brains), who wrote an inspired piece of common sense in “In praise of Idleness” way back in 1935 (I wish the world had listen to him then – we would have saved ourselves from much of the disasters of the twentieth century):

  • “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous.”
  • “The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.”
  • “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.”

Pay careful attention to this argument by Russell regarding a ‘sensible’ idea like savings:

  • “One of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some Government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man’s economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.”

Lest you feel Russel is biased towards idleness, we will consider what other authorities have to say in the matter:

  • Agatha Christie says, “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble.”
  • And here is a definition of an Idiot by Ambrose Bierce – “A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot’s activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but “pervades and regulates the whole.” He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line.”
  • “What keeps earth air breathable? Not oxygen alone. The earth is a freer place to breathe in, every time you love without calculating a return – every time you make your drudgeries and routines still more inefficient by stopping to experience the shock of beauty wherever it unpredictably flickers.” ― Peter Viereck.
  • “This type of man who is devoted to the study of wisdom is always most unlucky in everything, and particularly when it comes to procreating children; I imagine this is because Nature wants to ensure that the evils of wisdom shall not spread further throughout mankind.” This comes from, no less, the father of Enlightenment, Desiderius Erasmus in his ‘Praise of Folly’(1509).

I shall not labor any further to convince you. This is because, one, I do not like to labor, and second, if it requires a perfect argument to convert one to inefficiency, then it is not worth the effort.


Preparing for the future

“Superboss wants the proposal in fifteen minutes,“ announced Mr A, my boss.

“But that’s impossible. The proposal has not even been made yet,” I said.

“No it is not. He wants it in fifteen minutes from the time he remembers it again. That may be months later, if at all,” replied Mr A calmly, shuffled his papers in a neat stack, settled down before his computer and started a game of Scrabble on the net.

Mr A is perhaps the only person in office who is not overawed by Superboss. The words of the top boss are like water on a duck’s back – they fail to ruffle him in the least. Since there seemed to be no hurry to work on the project, my mind wandered.

“I am not too sure why we, I mean our company, is not adapting to the changing times. I fear that before long we would become redundant. We are losing ground,” I grumbled.

“There are times when not doing anything is the best option. For this company, reinventing itself now would be financially disastrous,” he murmured.

This attitude irritates me no end. “With steadily falling revenues, and a certainty of redundancy in about five years, how can not doing anything be a good idea,” I argued.

“The software developed in the nineties by our engineers is stable and serve the small businesses well. If we are to go in for a new line of products, the company would have to hire a new generation of engineers, spend a fortune on new research and market it in a very competitive field. If the new products succeed, and it is a big if, the new products will give competition to our established programs, undermine them, and hit our bottom-line,” he explained.

It seemed to be a dead end. “So basically we enjoy till the lifetime of the current set of programs and then…”

“They also serve who only stand and wait,” Mr A smiled, quoting Milton. That seemed to the end of the discussion, and I noticed that Mr A had scored a bingo with ‘passive’.

Curiously the same question came up in a meeting called by Superboss later that week.

“CEO has written to all the zones asking us to brainstorm and send proposals for developing a new line of programs in accordance with the needs of our clients,” announced Superboss grimly. It was not clear why he sounded so annoyed. “Any suggestion?” he barked.

As expected no one stuck his head out. Without a volunteer, it was now up to Superboss to select the victim. “What do you say ‘A’?”

“Umm mumble mumble..” Mr A began to give his ‘well considered’ response with a look of an Oracle.

“Louder please, we can’t hear you,” growled Superboss, forcing Mr A to use the English language.

“What I mean is, it is high time we updated our product line. The world is changing fast and we would be left behind if we do not spend on timely research,” said Mr A with conviction.

“We all know that. What do we do about it?” Superboss said with a deliberate, and desperate, slowness.

“We should send a proposal,” replied Mr A promptly. Superboss showed admirable restraint, and, for a change, refused to get provoked.

“Who would make this proposal?” he asked.

“It would have to be a collective effort. The software engineers are in the best position to propose a draft proposal, which can then be vetted by various departments and then maybe a committee can be setup to go through it carefully…” began Mr A, but he was cut short by Superboss.

“The proposal is supposed to be sent within a month,” he pointed out.

Mr A smiled and nodded his head. It was not clear whether he was questioning the practicality of the timeline or whether he was endorsing it to be appropriate.

Again it was time to select a victim, and since Mr A seemed to have annoyed Superboss, it was hardly surprising that he was caught – “You consult the agents and prepare a draft. We meet again in three days to discuss it,” said Superboss and the meeting ended with a collective sigh of relief from the rest of the people assembled in the room.

I had expected Mr A to resent this new job, but I was wrong. Back in his room, Mr A ordered coffee for us and started another game of Scrabble. I feel he is becoming a Scrabble addict – earlier it was Solitaire.

“You would have to consult a number of agents,” I began, trying to know what he would want me to do on this project.

“Don’t worry, we will do it. These agents do not know anything, we will have to make the draft proposal ourselves. I will make the first draft, then you have a look,” he said vaguely.

I did not broach the subject again for the next two days, though I was uncomfortable over the fact that we were not preparing the proposal. On the morning of the meeting on the ‘Proposed Draft on New Product Line’, Mr A handed me a pen drive with the instruction to go through the document that he had made.

The document was full of generalizations and unimpressive, but handing back the pen drive I just said “It seems ok.” That satisfied Mr A, who strode in the meeting hall, full of confidence.

Mr A began to give a gist of his draft proposal, while I distributed the printouts.

“Speaking to a cross section of agents and end users, it was evident that although the current product line, with recent modifications, serve their purpose well, it would not be a bad idea to explore the possibility of adding some new features like linking it with social networking sites. However, another section of opinion feels that it would compromise its sturdiness and security, and would only add to non-serious and frivolous features that are non-core.”

Everyone looked keenly at the document given to them. The expression on their faces showed that no one could make a head or tail of it. Finally it was Superboss who spoke. “The proposal seems ok,” he began doubtfully. “What will be the next step?”

“We send it to the technical department so that they can see the feasibility. We may also ask them to give any additional ideas that they feel could become the industry standard in the next five years,” replied Mr A.

The suggestion was adopted at the end of a brief speech by Superboss. Another three days was given to the engineers to work over it. The head of engineering wing, Techie, looked hassled. It was obvious that he did not know what to do with the document he now had in his hands.

Three days later I realized Techie had found an answer to his problems. For a change, he decided not to flow against the tide, and endorsed the draft proposal, terming it as very good, and added some generalizations of his own. The report was now deemed fit to be sent over to the HQ, with a covering note of Superboss. Three top managers spent the next week carefully drafting that cover note, and the thing was done.

It was about six months later, when we had completely forgotten the proposal, that a letter of appreciation by the CEO was received by Superboss. Tthe letter said that our proposal was the best submitted by any zonal office, and that a crack team of consultants, hired by the HQ, was working on it to give it a final shape. CEO expected the report of the consultants to be submitted any day now.

A beaming Superboss congratulated everybody for the hard work they had put in and Mr A praised the vision of Superboss, on which, he said, the report was based. The future having been taken care of, we all felt reassured that the company was in good hands, and that we too had made our contribution.


Towards better business relations

“The question is how to improve relations with our clients,” began Superboss in a resigned tone.
The problem with our organization is that no one likes the ‘clients’ – or agents as we call them. At best they are a necessary evil, at worst they are an unnecessary menace. We have never been able to decide what would happen to our zonal office if we did not have any ‘clients’. One school of thought believes that nobody would notice the difference at the HQ, while the other feels that the existence of the agents is the last, and a pretty tenuous, reason for being tolerated. Anyway, we have managed to suppress our latent hostility towards them a great extent so far.
Mr A, my immediate boss, has the charge of ‘handling’ with the agents. Earlier this was the responsibility of the technical guys because we are a company dealing with customized software for small businesses. By and by, the relations between the company engineers and the agents collapsed totally – the two parties speak totally different languages.
Mr A was appointed initially as an interpreter between these warring factions, but later, as a punishment for some blunder, was given the sole charge of keeping the agents happy. So far he has managed to stay afloat – complaints by the agents have not yet reached the HQ.
Superboss has taken a number of meetings to resolve the trouble in this department. “What are the key trouble areas?” he asked yet again. The answer to this question has been provided to him, orally and in writing, in form of a comprehensive report and also as a one page summary and in form of a powerpoint presentation in one of the earlier meetings.
“The problem is that the products that we are offering do not suit the clients of the agents…” began Mr A, but he was promptly interrupted by Superboss.
“What do you mean does not suit – the software is tailor made for the needs of small businesses – it is doing so well across the world, there is no reason why it would suddenly stop being useful here. We are not communicating its features properly,” said Superboss, not willing to buy this excuse.
“Our technical team is not able to customize the software for the needs of companies here, at least that is what the agents have been saying,” continued Mr A doggedly.
“I have talked to the technical manager. He tells me that the software has certain limitations regarding its ability to customize, and this limit has been deliberately put to ensure the sturdiness and integrity of the system. What the companies need is a little bit of reorientation and training to adapt to a new platform. The agents must understand this. Such reorientation  is done all over the world, I don’t know why everything becomes a problem here,” said Superboss, his temper rising visibly.
The internal contradiction of ‘customized’ software refusing to be customized does not strike as curious to anyone in our company. I have a suspicion that the techies are taking us for a ride, but the management does not have the expertise to call their bluff. The problem it therefore seemed was of the unnatural obduracy of the part of the agents to understand the situation.
Mr A had a sudden flash. “We can organize a reorientation course for the agents,” he suggested.
This idea struck a chord, and Superboss smiled, “You do that. Have an orientation course in a good place. I think we should be able to spare some money – book a five star hotel. Some of us can also join in – it will be a refresher for us also. There are some aspects of our software I am also not clear about…” continued Superboss happily.
Superboss was being unnecessarily humble – most of our top bosses do not know anything about any of our numerous ‘products’. Managers are trained to succeed in life blindfolded, and it would be a virtual admission of weakness of the ‘art of management’ if they were to understand the technical details. The tech guys also prefer this arrangement. I think the techies secretly fantasize becoming a Steve Jobs of a Bill Gates one day. They closely guard the technical details from the management, probably with the hope of escaping one night to  the Silicon Valley and cashing their knowledge with a startup or something.
The plan for a reorientation course for the agents materialized within a few days. A five star hotel was booked, arrangements were made for sumptuous meals and frequent snack breaks. Elegant kits were ordered for distribution and the CEO was invited for inaugurating the course.
The course was dubbed as the first of its kind ‘in the industry’ and the PR guys started chasing the media for a write-up on it on ‘one of the weekends’. A rag-tag tabloid did do a full page feature on the ‘Rising trend of Orientation Courses in Business’ but they got totally mixed up with their facts and even got the name of Superboss wrong. They even attributed a wrong quote to him. It was months before Superboss could forget this faux pas and forgive the PR manager.
There were two things that could not be decided till the very last day – the course content and the speakers (or trainers) for the course. The proposal to call the top engineers from the US was shot down as too expensive and not relevant to the needs of the local situation. The techies tried to avoid facing the hostile and unintelligible agents.
For a while the opinion tilted towards inviting ‘industry experts’ and ‘opinion makers’ to speak. The idea was to make the course high profile and classy. It was however pointed out by a disgruntled element that the very idea of familiarizing the agents with the specifications of our software would not be served by calling ‘outside’ experts.
Finally it was decided, though reluctantly, that after the speeches of the CEO and Superboss, and a round of refreshments, one selected agent would be asked to speak on his experience with our company. It was however to be ensured by Mr A that this gentleman should be carefully selected and tutored. Next, after lunch, would be a session by the technical manager who would, along with his team of engineers, highlight the strengths of our products. The last session, after tea, would be open for Q&A.
The entire program, it seemed, was carefully designed to stymie any effective communication between the sullen agents and the reticent engineers.
In the end CEO backed out – he went to Dubai for a Seminar on Extending Business Relations. Superboss presided over the inaugural session, and lest the august gathering missed the presence of the CEO, took double the slated time to complete his ‘welcome’ speech.
The agent selected by Mr A to speak was an 85 year old gentleman with a soft voice and failing memory. He was the least belligerent among the agents, felt Mr A, and most amenable to tutoring. Mr Jack Roberts had not sold a single unit of our software in the last two years, but has attended all our get-togethers and was deemed to be a ‘sober’ voice.
Jack began by thanking all the members of our office that he personally knew, for calling him to chair the session. Next he described the great personal qualities of Superboss. This was the tutored part, and he referred to his notes a number of times to refresh his memory. He described his relations with the company in brief, and then gave a lengthy description of his career, his life and times and moved on to give a brief account of the achievements of his grandson, who was studying in the US. It was only when the impatient hotel staff rudely announced lunch that he stopped abruptly, and the session ended.
Post lunch, the presentation by the techies acted like soothing music on the sumptuous food and resulted in most of the agents nodding off to a well-earned siesta. They were however rudely woken by the belligerent howl of Ben, one of our more discontented agents.
Benjamin Wright or Ben does push our products to a considerable extent, but his aggressive attitude and lack of manners irritates Superboss no end. During the last few months Ben has been trying his best to break the patience of Mr A, though without much success so far.
“What is the use of reading the product brochure? What we want is the inside dope – how to customize the software, how to satisfy the actual buyers regarding the questions that they raise?”
It was not clear who this question was addressed to. The technical manager looked expectantly at Superboss and Superboss looked hopefully towards Mr A for enlightenment. Mr X, sitting just behind Superboss, murmured, “Who invited this bugger?” in a voice calculated to reach Ben. Mr A looked calm and unconcerned.
Finally Superboss had to intervene. He began with his pet theory of the ‘sturdy software and the need for reorientation for users’ mindsets’, but Ben would have none of it.
“Consider some of the minor problems first,” began Ben, “The accountancy laws here are different. The currency and the time zones are different. The product line of most the businesses and nomenclature here are different. The tax laws are different. Even the way that we write a date is different here. I am told that the software has the ability to absorb such changes, but no one tells how. Then to some more serious issues..”
This time Superboss cut in, “Ben you are putting in too many things together. This is what confuses the issues more than anything else. I have told you before that if you could just prepare a list of the issues that you feel need to be addressed and give them to me…”
“I gave the list to you last year, and again twice this year. I also posted it on the facebook page that you started…”
“See that is the problem,” Superboss raised his voice to match Ben’s, “You are going all over the place but are not willing to listen….”
“Listen to what?”
“This cannot go on like this. I think we would like to hear Mr A on the issues raised,” said Mr A with a flourish. He knew he was playing his best card at the most crucial moment. He does have faith in Mr A’s abilities.
“”Mummble…mumble,” began Mr A accompanied with a winning smile and a soft voice. “While Ben does raise some relevant questions, the answer lies in looking beyond the immediate future,” said Mr A and stopped. What had seemed to be a ‘prelude’ to many of us, was in fact the entire and complete answer to the questions raised.
Ben and Superboss seemed stunned into silence, but some of the ‘simple’ souls requested Mr A to elaborate. Mr A was not in the mood to oblige. He looked shy and humble in an equal measure, and his manners indicated that he would rather not underestimate the intelligence of those present by explaining what was obvious.
Superboss took over once again. “I think ‘A’ is right to an extent, but we have also noted the concern of Ben, and we would look into the matter. I think the gentleman at the back also wished to raise some point.”
Ben was not to be shaken off too easily, and began his familiar vitriolic attack. Superboss looked at Mr A, and Mr A looked at the banquet manager. In a loud voice the manager announced that tea was served. That brought the session to a close, and once again, on a happy note. The tension had become too much for some of the older members to bear, and with a collective sigh of relief, all moved towards the atrium for some refreshing Assam tea.
After an extended tea break, Superboss announced that since the Q&A session had already been included in the previous part of the program we would move directly to the presentation of ‘best agent awards’ and concluding speeches. No one disputed the motion and the last session sailed past smoothly and without a hitch.
“See how even a little effort can make such a big difference,” announced Superboss in the Monday meeting the following week. “CEO was enquiring about our reorientation course for agents and I told him quite frankly that we had slipped slightly but with this initiative we have clarified the doubts completely and the agents are feeling much more empowered and close to the company now.”
The bonhomie created by the reorientation course between the management and the agents must have been platonic – for I could not find much evidence of it in my daily interactions with them. But at least the meetings on the subject of disgruntled agents stopped for a while, and that can definitely be counted as one tangible and positive outcome of the exercise.

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