Tag Archives: managers

Sense of responsibility

Our meeting was a disaster. There was no consensus on even the need to save the company, let alone the way it was to be done.

Mr A, my boss, sat through the meeting, silent, like the man who has accidently walked into a divorce proceeding, but knows not how to extricate himself from the mess without seeming to be rude.

That Mr A was among the oldest employee of the company in our branch did not instill in him any feeling of loyalty that was so manifest in rest of the agitated members. That seemed strange to me, for I believe that his skill-set is not likely to be of any use to any other organization, and that he has a direct stake in the survival of the company.

Later that day in our office, I delicately broached the subject.

“There is a fear that if things continue to slide, it will be curtains for the company. Have you thought of any plan B?’ I asked him, seeing that he was waiting for his opponent to make his move on the online scrabble.

“What for?” he mumbled absently.

“You don’t fear that things will get worse, and we should start brushing up our CVs?” I tried a more direct approach.

“You are panicking too soon. That fool doesn’t know what he is talking about,” answered Mr A. I understood he was talking about his arch-rival Mr X, who was the one who had called the meeting today.

“Why, you see a turnaround?” I asked.

“Of course. Its commonsense. In a company of our size, what you do at branch office doesn’t matter, but what is done at the HQ is important.”

“And…what is being done at the HQ?”

“Nothing, so far as I can see. But that will change with the requirement of the times. Pressure to stay afloat will force them to act.”

“But that can also mean shutting down braches like ours.”

“Of course it can. That could be one of the options. Changes in technology could be another. In fact there are at least half a dozen possibilities of what could happen.”

“None of which we control,” I said, agitated.

“Don’t try to be a control-freak. There are thousands of things in life you don’t control. If you start worrying about all of it, when will you live?” he said, smiling at last.

That bugged me, for it was too condescending, but I let the matter rest.

A few days later, I found Mr A in an agitated state. It was early Monday morning, a time when we generally go for a cup of tea at the canteen, and I asked boss if we should go.

“No, you go ahead. I have something urgent to finish,” he said without looking up from the screen.

“What is it? May I do something?” I asked, surprised.

“Oh nothing. Superboss asked me to make a plan to submit to the HQ to turnaround the dropping sales. He feels that our branch is at stake and that we should take the matter seriously. I totally agree. All the buggers here are living in fools’ paradise, thinking they can keep on living like they did and others will think for them,” he said accusingly.

The change of tack was too quick for me, and I let it sink for a while. Taking a deep breath, I asked, “So what does Superboss want?”

“A proper plan for restructuring, and a new business model that is specific for our branch, but, if possible, something that can be integrated into a model for the whole company. In any case, we must do something to guard our interest,” he explained reasonably.

“What was the provocation today for Superboss?” I asked, for I knew therein lay the solution to this mystery.

“I think he got a letter from the CEO, who refers to a prospect of closing down some branches, and has asked for suggestions to avert such a possibility,” Mr A said.

If our branch were to close down, Superboss may or may not be taken to the HQ. Clearly his job was on the line. So things had come to such a pass.

“What’s the plan you have in mind?” I asked Mr A.

“Changing product line, upgrading technology and aggressively hiring new agents. It is a no-brainer. Shift in technology keeps on happening, and you must incrementally update yourself. If you don’t, you will have crisis at hand, when you will have to do it. We have left things to drift for too long.”

“But the other day you were not so worried. You said that…” I began, but was interrupted.

“I know what I said. And I know what I am saying now,” he said heating up. “Instead of talking shop, that bugger should come up with practical proposals,” he said implying that I was siding up with Mr X.

“Mr X has no plans,” I said to placate him. “But should the HQ not think of solutions. The crisis has been created because they did not act for so long,” I reminded him.

“No. That is where you are wrong. The crisis is because the branches did not give the right picture to the HQ. Did not project their requirements. HQ is not where action is, branches are. We should wake up now, or it will be too late. You call for tea here, we will have to work hard to get this document done today. Maybe we will be sent to the HQ for making a presentation next week….”

Our office was filled with a degree of urgency not seen before. At least not in the last few years. Within a week, the whole branch was buzzing with frenzied activity.

For making an office work, nothing like putting the job of the top man at stake, I thought happily. I wish I could engineer that more often.

***


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.

***

 


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.

 

****


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.
 
***

The best of times is now!

We were in the midst of our daily cribbing session, where no one can escape our critical gaze. The conversation had turned a little too morbid, and so with the intention of channeling the discussion into a positive vein, I said, “If one does ones work with full honesty, one can make a difference.”

This seemingly harmless statement raised the hackles of all those present. Apparently we were the holy cows of the company, and my statement had questioned the devotion, the dedication and the selfless toil that we have been putting in. ‘We’ in the present instance stands for the motley group who share lunch-time together at the canteen. In the group are some HR juniors, a few Admin old hands and Phil, the balding HR veteran, who, as we all know, opted out of the rat race long ago.

“What do you mean, if one works with honesty? It is the top management that is looting the company and not putting in its best. They are always on the lookout for private gains – they have robbed the company dry,” retorted a disgruntled PR guy.

This effort to shift the focus back on ‘them’ irritated me. “But what have we done for the company? And what difference would it make if ‘we’ are at the helm, rather than ‘them’?” I asked.

“What powers do we have to do anything? All sensible proposals are shot down. We are forever covering up for the blunders of others, or doing useless work – work that we too know is just a waste of time. And how do you know that we won’t be different? In any case, we won’t be in those positions because we are wasting time thinking positive, and not buttering the bosses this very minute,” replied an agitated old hand.

“All this talk about others being the culprit is hardly a positive attitude,” I glared, my temper rising for no one seemed to be getting my point. “This attitude is what is keeping our country back,” I added, widening the scope of my allegation against ‘us’.

Things would have gone out of hand, and I would have been branded a turncoat, had Phil not intervened. “What David means to say is that we have let ourselves down by being demoralized by the self-servers, and we wait helplessly for some savior, rather than take matters in our own hands and rebel against the pettiness of those in power.”

This was exactly what I had not said. It was in fact the opposite of what I had wanted to say. But before I could butt in and clarify, the mollified bunch nodded, looked apologetically towards me and the crisis was past. I did not have it in me to make my protest, and I did not reiterate that what I meant was that ‘we’ are as bad as ‘them’.

But this point rankled and I decided to get the opinion of Mr A in the matter. The occasion arose when, a few days later, I took a proposal about a comprehensive reorganization of our division to Mr A, my immediate boss and the head of Special Services.

Special Services is, in fact, the new name given to our division which deals with relations with our agents and important customers. Earlier we were called Coordination, but because we have to be on the Social Media networks, our division was forced to adopt a more glamorous name. The need for reorganization had also been mooted. The proposal for this reorganization I had drafted, and this I was now pushing towards Mr A.

Eventually Mr A gave his verdict. “The proposal is good and logical but would not be accepted. I think we would have to rework it a little.”

I knew all this when I made the proposal. I had rationally analyzed the manpower requirements, made provisions for the projected expansion of our work, kept in mind the existing hierarchy and had even restrained myself in asking for too much resources in view of the fact that the company was passing though some financial turbulence. The present proposal was a logical way of making the division workable and efficient. And yet I knew, instinctively, that it would not be accepted.

“What is the problem?” I asked.

“Nothing much,’ replied Mr A, “Just that you have made the division too tight, too compartmentalized. You have left out many things that we have been doing – I don’t see where those jobs would fit in.”

“We have to leave the redundant functions if we are to do the new ones properly. Many things just don’t make sense now – technology and culture has changed,” I argued.

“I know. The problem will be in convincing the top about letting go of the work that can be abandoned or outsourced. You have also kept too little provision for the resources that we would be requiring.”

“That is because I did not want the proposal to be shot down because of financial issues. We desperately need to bring some order in our division,” I explained.

Mr A shook his head sadly. “Again you are getting emotionally attached to something that you are doing. Acceptance or rejection of the proposal is not in your hands and should not worry you. Also, you have to factor in the psychology of those who shall be evaluating your proposal. For example, a simple common sense logic says that you ask for at least five times the amount that you need. Finance would chop it to half, a portion would be diverted to other pet projects of the boss, and a portion would be needed as buffer for cost escalations. You realize that even if this proposal is accepted, by the time the money comes in, the costs would double?”

“All these games lead the company down. And that is why the guys claim that it is because of the stupidity of those in power that we are not forging ahead,” I said bitterly.

That got Mr A interested. Mr A is a thinker and a philosopher – he likes to go into the root-causes, and my tangent, because it did not make an immediate sense, appealed to the philosopher in him. “What was that?” he asked.

“Why should experienced managers make decision on basis of their personal interests? Finance wants to keep his hands clean – he would make safe ‘investments’ in every pie, not backing any project to its conclusion. Superboss selects some pet projects that would show him up. Even the CEO pays attention to the cash-rich zones and products, not wanting to invest in potential regions or research because that would give results in a few years’ time, when he is not around. And then all the workers are blamed equally for the slide.”

That was the jist of the grievance of my pals, as I understood it, and I had put the matter squarely before Mr A for his opinion.

“This feeling comes as a result of muddled thinking. Try to see the broad picture,” began Mr A, but I interrupted.

“The broad picture is that there is a leadership crisis in our society,” I said.

“No, the broad picture is that there is no crisis. The society is working on the principles on which all societies and all organizations have always worked,” he said.

“And that principle being?” I asked, sarcastically.

“Individual interest,” replied Mr A calmly. “Society is a collection of interests of people who got together. Complex structures evolved slowly to serve this interest. In the process some people got more powerful and made others serve their interest. Thus came the winners and losers, and the battle began. This battle is of epic proportions and goes on in the names of ideologies. But to survive within this battleground one must never forget that at the root is the individual interest, and we are the exclusive custodians of our own interests.”

“Total selfishness is the basic principle?”

“Some rare people may rise above self-interests, though I do not think that anyone actually does, but the majority takes all its decisions on selfish considerations only. Organizations have to be structured such that individual and organizational interests do not clash too much. As such, nobody is right or wrong, and nobody can be blamed.”

“And how to apply this principle in this proposal?”

“Try to see how many individual interests you can serve without compromising the basic goal,” he said.

“That would be wasteful, and not the best way to do it,” I said.

“It is a cost to be paid, not a waste. The fate of the company is dependent on a lot of factors, not just intelligence of the bosses. If the sector is doing well, even a duffer would seem a genius. In fact in the nineties we had many ‘geniuses’ because we did not have competition,” he pointed out.

“The principle looks craven and would only lead to slow decline. We are faced with a leadership crisis,” I said, not convinced.

“On the contrary, absence of crisis makes it look as if we do not have leaders,” Mr A said.

Now that was a new one and I urged him to elaborate.

“Crisis produces a situation where individual interests are aligned with the goals of larger social bodies. In war, you have to serve the state otherwise the enemy shall rape you too. In financial downturn, everybody has to work harder or he would be jobless along with everyone else. All contribute, and the nearest leader who is at hand, gets the credit,” Mr A explained in his inimitable style.

“There shall be a crisis soon, and we shall have a leader then,” I laughed at this circular logic, which also seemed irrefutable.

“Yes, it is a cyclical phenomenon. But get one thing clear in your head – at a time when there seems to be a lack of leadership, it is the best of times, and one should enjoy it. For such times do not last for long.”

A cynical theory that gives hope is a rare thing. But then Mr A is not a common thinker – I resolved to give his theory more thought. But I would be lying if I said that I had understood how to revise my proposal in tune with the philosophy of Mr A.

***

 

 


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