Tag Archives: meetings

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 first reform: Do away with the kursi (chair)

At a time when many proposed reforms are being floated in the air, both by the government and by those who oppose them, I propose the abolition of big offices for Ministers and Secretaries as the first and most essential administrative reform. All others will follow. Let me explain.

People have noted the difference between meeting a high dignitary in his office, and meeting him/her at any other place on the planet. In the former setting, s/he is the king/queen. Here the visitor/petitioner comes out of the meeting without saying what he had intended to, when s/he had sought an appointment. The dignitary has, let us say, the home-advantage.

But this is not a small advantage, and the implications are not small. People wanting to petition a dignitary, stand a fair and equal chance if the meeting is held outside of their office. (Hence the concept of people’s darbars.) Outside their offices, the dignitaries look (….gasp…) humans.

The air-conditioned environs of a sparsely populated innards of the office of a dignitary is designed to lend an aura to the owner, as well as confidence. The Assistant sitting outside, letting only one person in, at a time, has a role to play – he has to add to the grandness of the occasion. The sullen faced peon, who may be called in to serve tea, is trained to look at the visitor in a manner that men would look at cockroaches in their kitchens. This is designed to sap the confidence of the visitor and to put him off.

It has also been noted that if the visitor is an important guest, or ranks higher than the dignitary, the meeting does not take place at the huge work-table – they meet at a separate sofa-set, on an equal footing, as it were. This is because the visiting party also knows the ‘game’ and is likely to feel offended at the naked display of power. This display is meant only for the hoi-polloi.

In a democracy, these offices are occupied for most of the five years that ministers are in office. They venture out of it for short periods before the elections. That is why democracy is said to be the best form of government. It forces them out at least once in a while. For the bureaucrats, this rule does not apply, for their operating procedures were defined by the colonial rulers, way back in the nineteenth century, when these rules were found to be fundamental to ruling a foreign country. (For the bureaucrat, the countryside apparently remains a foreign country.)

The insulation given to a President, with the aura of a Viceregal Palace, is extended to all the senior dignitaries in government in various proportions – this is called ‘order of precedence’ in officialese.

I wrote this ‘Revolutionary’ poem ‘Let’s try something stupid, for once’ a few months ago-

 
Let our offices have no doors.
Let it be a free for all; let people
Just walk in for tea or gossip.
The sanitized, air-conditioned offices
The multi-national air, the aura of a CEO
Sits ill on our leaders.
 
Let us reclaim the areas
Where our leaders sit,
As public places. Let us do away
With the guards and the red-lights
Along with the doors.
Let no one bar our entrance.
 
Let the world laugh at us
As we hold offices under the trees
(In local dialects, with cheap stationary.)
Let us frame stupid policies;
Let us hear out the village bumpkins.
Let us shock ourselves with sanity.
 
We always remember Gandhi
When everything else fails –
The poor pick up the guns
When even the last door is slammed shut.
Let us ban all doors –
Let us try democracy, for once.
 
 

There is little evidence, however, that the revolution is around the corner. The Congress Party chief keeps on reminding the leaders that they have lost ‘contact’ with the people. The middling Congress leaders say that it is difficult to meet the Ministers. The Chief Ministers, when they come visiting the Union Home Minster, leave the office with their heads drooping and demands unconveyed, except in form of pre-written petitions. Some Chief Ministers even refuse to come to Delhi, when summoned, terrified of the ‘offices’. It is other matter that the same CMs have even more lavish offices in their states, and are the masters of this game themselves.

There is a beautiful scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, where Hitler and Mussolini jack up their chairs to dominate the other in a one-to-one meeting. I wish the visitor’s chairs in the offices today also had the provision of cranking-up and elevating the chair. But that would only be a partial solution. The solution lies in altogether abolishing these offices. There are good ‘open-office’ designs to choose from and adopt, with glass doors and smaller furniture.

Team Anna (the activists calling for administrative-political reforms in India) feels more comfortable on a public platform than in the office of the Finance Minister. Last year they came out of the office of that dignitary sad and subdued – their bravado evaporated at the first sight of the magnificent oak table and chill in the room filled their hearts. Since then they prefer the open air summer heat of Delhi.

Much of the same things happens to the farmers and the common-man in the small towns and villages. They would much rather bear the heat and deprivation of their villages, than go to the city to meet the dignitaries in their AC rooms. They know that the meeting would be futile. They would rather wait for the next elections, when the Ministers would come, in spotless-clean kurtas, sometimes with the bureaucrats in tow, and assure them of reforms if they were voted back to power.

***


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 new age dawns

“Why are you giving your location and details of your feelings on a per minute basis,” I asked Soapy, confused.

He glared at me, and moved on.

I looked at Phil, the balding veteran of the HR department, for enlightenment. “What’s up David?” he asked.

“This fellow is on the net, and keeps updating his status all the time. Why this craze – I don’t get it,” I explained.

Phil shook his head, “This needs careful thought,” he said, “Soapy doesn’t do anything without a purpose. How do you know he does this?”

“Actually I am linked to him on the net and keep getting his messages. See..” I said and showed Phil the mystifying statements that Soapy had been broadcasting to the world for the last few days.

“’Deep into files,’ says one message,” read Phil, “’Holidays cancelled, Wife attacks with blunt object,’ says another. Lots of alphabets that do not mean anything…..Sad faces…”

“Those are smilies,” I said.

“But they look unhappy.”

“This one is a sad smiley,” I explained.

“Whatever,” said Phil and silently read on. “He seems to have an opinion about everything in the world…and seems to be a good poet too.”

“Those poems are copied from the net. If you look carefully, they are mostly from Shakespeare, twisted and modernized slightly,” I said.

“You seem to have done some research into this,” Phil commented.

“I have been observing him, yes, for I doubted his poetic capabilities,” I explained defensively.

What remained unsaid was that I have started feeling threatened by this youngster, who, I have no doubt, will go to any extent to grab the next promotion opportunity, leaving me in an awkward situation where I would have to do a lot of explaining to ‘she-who-must-not-be-disobeyed’.

Later that week, Superboss called a meeting on the ‘targets’, and was in a foul mood. “How many repeat customers are you getting,” he asked Mr A, my immediate boss, who was handling the agents for some time now.

“Lots,” he said, “They keep on repeating the same thing.”

“What do they repeat?” Mr A had managed to confuse Superboss again.

“Hmm,” said Mr A, “That’s not worth repeating, but it is mostly whining.”

“You mean they are not satisfied?”

“It seems so,” said Mr A. “They don’t seem to like the product. They say it is a mishmash of old ideas.”

“What rot,” said Superboss, raising his voice. “The product is being well received in all the other zones.”

There was of course no need to respond to a statement of fact, and so Mr A kept quiet. Superboss waited for some time, expecting Mr A to clarify, but finally had to ask, “So what do you suggest we should do?”

Mr A shrugged and mumbled something to the effect that we should make something that is actually sellable.

“What can be done is to use the social media to our advantage,” said Soapy, with a smirk, “And keep in touch with our customers and agents on a more regular basis. What is more, it would not cost us anything.”

Superboss’ face lit up. Whether it was because it was a new idea, or because the promised solution was to be free, he took an immediate liking to it. On his prodding, what followed was a detailed account of the powers of new media by our resident expert, Soapy.

Mr X, the arch rival of my boss, was the first to jump up to the idea – and it was with great difficulty that he restrained himself from walking up to Soapy, and shaking him by the hand. With what I perceived to be tears of happiness in his eyes, he seconded the idea of adopting the social media in all our activities, and especially for maintaining a close relation with our agents.

The upshot of the meeting was that Mr A was given the job of starting our accounts on all social media platforms – ‘immediately and without fail by this weekend’ – and report the results in a meeting to all the colleagues in a week’s time. And thus, on that bright morning, we began our journey into the new world.

The start turned out to be easier than expected. Except for Soapy, who had expected the task of implementing the idea to be given to him, everyone was happy. Most believed that since the matter was in the hands of Mr A, nothing would come out of it in the end – they had full confident in him, and rightly so, if I may add.

Mr A has a number of aces up his sleeve when confronted with work. Sometimes he expands the work to such a colossal amount, that it has to be outsourced. Sometimes he buys time till the work becomes redundant and everyone forgets about it. Sometimes he messes it to the extent that it has to be dropped altogether.

In this case, however, he did not have to do much. He just launched the idea, and it took care of itself. That is, the idea proved itself to be a disaster, without Mr A having to do anything to ruin it.

Mr A was in his elements when he made his presentation on his experiences with the social media the following week.

“As directed, our office started a Twitter and a Facebook account, and we got huge support from our agents. Almost all logged on with us on the first day itself. In fact agents and managers of our rival companies also logged on…” began Mr A, and Superboss gave him a pleasant smile.

“From the first day itself, we started getting questions on our products, our pricing policy, our agent selection policy, our future plans regarding the products, the actual cost of our products and the mechanism by which we decide on the commission to different agents…”

Superboss cut Mr A short mid sentence- “How are all these things relevant to the agents?” he asked.

Mr A shrugged, and said “Don’t know. They seemed very keen to know, and persisted with these questions. In fact they started a discussion on these subjects on our sites, and started sharing their experiences. I have a printout of the discussions here – we have made a few copies for all of us to go through. David please distribute the copies..”

The senior managers went through the transcripts with increasing sense of alarm. Mr A continued – “There are some positive references about David, and even about me if I may add, for starting this site. We immediately clarified that it was the idea of Superboss – yours sir. But some disgruntled elements diverted the discussions into some very irrelevant channels, questioning your appointment and caliber, and even that of some of our other managers. Some stooges of our rival company, I am sure they were planted, even tried to spread canards about our products. On page three, you would notice, the discussion suddenly turns to the wasteful expenditure on our golf course project. We ruthlessly snubbed these stupid comments, even deleted many, but they kept cropping up….”

Mr A took the members through the various discussions that had come up on our sites. Mr A was very frank about it all. He did not hide the bitter details, just for the sake of making a favorable impression.

At the end of the presentation, Mr A asked for the opinion of members on how to take the project forward. Soapy, I noticed, looked aloof and disinterested. In fact, apart from Superboss, everyone looked disinterested in the goings on in the brave new world.

Finally, Superboss gave his verdict. “I don’t think the social network in this form suits our business. I am a believer in inter-personal relationships. We must focus on the people, rather than technology. It would be better to study the matter further, and in greater detail. ‘A’ you may close down the pilot project – it has served its purpose. You may like to name your team for studying the matter further. But we must not linger on in this matter for ages – I would like to have a report of your committee within three months….”

***


Ethical issues

“Are you feeling disillusioned, de-motivated, depressed?” asked Phil, sensing that I was in one of my gloomy moods. Phil is the HR veteran who had sidestepped the rat race long ago.

“You have just described my whole life,” I sighed.

“So what’s the problem? I mean, you should be used to it by now.”

I glared at Phil for rubbing salt in my wounds. “Pass me the salt,” I said, biting fiercely into my sandwich.

“Apply for training,” Phil said in a sympathetic tone. “It is the best survival tool, though this wild card is generally used a little later in the career, when a visit to the psychiatrist becomes inevitable. But you seem to have hit the spot quite fast.”

“It doesn’t happen to all. Look at Mr A, or Mr X or any of the other managers. Do they look stressed?” I asked gloomily.

“You will be surprised to hear some their histories. Our Superboss escaped the looney bin by a whisker,” said Phil. But such levity failed to pacify me.

“Jokes apart, I feel I do not have it in me to get ahead,” I said.

“Ahead of what? And I am not joking. All of us start with this innocent get-ahead, go-get-it philosophy. It is when we have travelled some distance that we realize that we don’t know where we want to go. Finally it comes to a point where only retirement-point is left as the goal.” That was also the crux of Phil’s philosophy, but was starkly different from that of Mr A, and I said so.

“Mr A wants to become regional head, and even a CEO in time. He is clear about his goals,” I said vehemently.

“So what stops you from setting those goals for yourself?” asked Phil.

“That is where the problem is with me. Those goals do not attract me now. And that is why I feel I am not in the right place,” I said.

“They did once, and that’s why you joined. But what happened then?” he asked. I remained silent, so he continued, “Then you saw what it was all about. Earlier you had only a fantasy about what being a CEO was, right?”

Phil could be a good psychiatrist, but did he have any solutions, I thought. “So what should I do?” I asked.

“That’s for you to decide’” he deadpanned in his usual, infuriating way.

“I think I could do with a promotion,” I said to divert him to a happier topic.

“Promotion is given to people with little skill or specialization, or who are generally useless, so that work does not suffer. Promoting less smart people also keeps the bosses reassured that there is no challenge to their position. Do you qualify?” he asked.

Phil was determined to keep me depressed. I think in the world of ‘not-in-the-rat-race’ types, this technique is equivalent of brainwashing to get converts.

“People do get ahead by sheer hard work and dedication, and I will stick to that path. Let us see where it leads to,” I replied, determined not to get into a negative frame. Phil smiled and offered to get me another cup of coffee.

I was undecided about another cup, but my decision was made when Grey, the Assistant to Admin came stomping in, and Phil ordered another round of coffee. It must have been something to do with the bitterness of winter for we were handed another disgruntled element.

“I will go slow from now,” declared Grey with his usual ferociousness.

“But you are already slow,” remarked a confused Phil. It was not meant to be a slight – Grey was proud of his ‘independence’.

“I…er..will go slower,” replied Grey, after giving the matter some thought.

“Nobody will notice the difference,” Phil pointed out.

“I don’t care,” said Grey, “I am a rebel.”

“What is the problem,” I asked.

“The problem is the absence of any opportunity for getting ahead in this organization. It saps the spirit. No enthusiasm. As if we did not matter. No career planning. I could list the problems, but where are the solutions?” grumbled Grey, putting four spoons of sugar in his coffee.

“David is having the same problem,” remarked Phil, pointing towards me. I was about to protest, but Grey cut me short – “You should also go slow,” he said.

That my problem was not an absence of promotion, and that I did not understand what ‘going slow’ would mean in my situation were difficult concepts to explain and I struggled for words.

“I am not looking for promotion,” I began.

“And promotion is not looking for you,” snapped Grey. “Soapy is going to get it this year.”

Now that was a news. And it jolted me. Soapy, an intern till the other day, and three years junior to me, about to be promoted? “They can’t promote him,” I said.

“Why not. Who stops them?”

If I thought things could not go worse, they just had. On one hand was my philosophy that promotions, career graph, rat race did not matter to me, and on the other was this clear shock of hearing that Soapy could become my boss – or at least a senior. What would my wife say, was an irrelevant thought that crossed my mind. Now that thought would have to be analysed too, at some later hour. The question that my mind framed for this bit of additional angst was – ‘was I working for the fear of comments of the better-half or for my own beliefs’.

I looked at Phil, who was observing me carefully. “Was your side-stepping the rat race by choice, or was it by some similar circumstance?” I asked.

“Ouch,” said Phil, “That was a hit below the belt. You will have to fight it out boy – you are not ready for side-stepping.” He sounded like an Indian guru, who is reluctant but willing to let a favorite disciple go back to his humdrum life. “Ask yourself what Mr A would have done in this situation,” he said.

“Done? Mr A had ruined that lad from Finance back in the nineties,” recalled Grey.

“Ralph the swine?” asked Phil.

“The same thug. And he was the nephew of the then CEO. Beat him at his own game, Mr A did,” Grey said happily. Grey likes dog-fights, both on streets and in the office. He says his grandchildren also like to hear stories of office dog-fights. I have met his grandchildren, and I can believe him on that.

“What happened?” I asked, forgetting my own woes.

“That Ralph was all pally with the GM and threw his weight around. He was given a long rope since he was The Nephew, you see. He was junior to A, and was going to be promoted. Disaster faced A right in his face, but did he feel faint, weak in the knee? You bet not,” said Grey, warming up the story, pepping it up a bit. But it was Phil who carried the story forward.

“It was a period when the new networkable-Pentium computers arrived on the scene and our company was developing a software on that platform. It was a good idea, especially for small businesses and chain-stores. We were on the final lap, competition only a little behind us. The tech team had it all sewn up and the thing was ready to be presented to the CEO. Ralph was deputed to present the outcome in a big meeting on behalf of all. Mr A was to be left twiddling his thumbs, arranging for the snacks at the meeting.”

The next bit was too good for Grey to let go, and he stepped in – “Mr A planned the move nicely. Just before the presentation what does he do? He goes to the GM and tells him that he had lost the only copy of the code, and the entire developing had to be done again. That almost killed the GM, and got Mr A murdered. After lot of hot words, which I had heard then, and I still remember, but would never repeat in a month of Mondays, Mr A had the audacity to suggest that he might just remember the key parts that might put the thing back on track again. But he needed to make the presentation himself.”

“Blackmail!” I exclaimed.

“That is exactly what the GM said, to which I think Mr A may have nodded slightly. Mr A also hinted that in the unfortunate event of his being turned out of the company, a competitor was willing to hire him. Mr A also asked for the best advice from the GM under the circumstances,” said Phil, and laughed heartily.

“Mr A had developed parts of that thing,” said Grey, “And was right in plugging the GM and that Nephew.”

“What happened then?” I asked.

“The presentation went off well, and in an inside deal, Ralph was promoted and sent to another zone, while Mr A was promoted here. An unfortunate development was that Mr A was disillusioned of the technical job, and converted into a manager – almost overnight. He hasn’t looked back since,” Phil concluded the story.

“Hardly ethical,” I said aghast, for it shed new light on the character of Mr A.

“And the Nephew? He was right, I suppose?” asked Grey hotly. I thought of the ‘Two wrongs do not a right make’ and such other stuff, but kept quiet for the audience was solidly behind the tactics of Mr A. Instead, I said that the solution presented in the story does not apply in my case, for I have not done anything that I could blackmail anyone with. And on that sobering note we dispersed.

It was a few days later, during a meeting to review customer relations (read agent relations, since we operate through them), that Soapy was given an opportunity to present his plan for significantly decreasing cost of customer-communication. Actually it was a superficial plan based on the idea of using SMSes and social-networking sites, all hyped up to look impressive.

Midway through the presentation, Fred, the Finance Manager, asked Soapy to give some concrete figures. The latter tried to bluff his way through, saying a study would have to be made to arrive at estimates, but going by similar trends in our industry, the cost benefit would be significant. To this Fred took umbrage – it was the type of jargon he used almost daily, and he saw through it immediately. “The presentation is meaningless if it does not deal in any specifics,” he grumbled.

Now Soapy was not a Nephew, and Superboss waited for the lad to save his skin – through bluff or otherwise. At this precise point I remembered that on our very own website we have a report by a consulting house which gives specific figures on that very subject. It would have taken few seconds for Soapy to open the site on his laptop and read out the figures, thus warding off this challenge.

I was about to point this out, from the dark corner where I sat, when suddenly the words of Phil came to my mind – “What would Mr A have done?”

It was an easy question to answer – Mr A would have done nothing. In fact it would not have crossed the mind of Mr A that anything was needed to be done by him. But, said my conscience, I was not Mr A. Another part of my brain said, “You are not Soapy’s assistant. It is not your job to get him out of the mess he has got himself into.”

During the time that I struggled with the morality of the issue, events were moving fast. Fred’s hostility had increased, Soapy’s self confidence had dented and he had confessed, under duress, that he had not thought of making concrete assessments, financially. The mirthless laughter of Fred exposed Soapy to be a sham. Soapy was asked to make practical proposals in the future and the meeting moved to the next item on the agenda.

The meeting dampened all prospects of an early promotion of Soapy, Grey told me later. It did bring give me some vicarious pleasure, but a part of me rebelled against this baser instinct. To this day I am not sure whether I should have spoken up or not. Nor am I clear whether my intervention would have helped Soapy – in fact he would have seen it as an attempt from my side to show off at his expense.

But of one thing I was sure – the talismanic question, “What would Mr A have done?” did play a role in my life. I should give careful attention to this phenomenon, besides studying the methods of Mr A carefully, I told myself once again.

****


Fiscal responsibility

 

The mood of Superboss was somber. In grave tones, befitting a memorial service, he announced that the HQ has sent a missive that expenditure is spiraling in our zone, and that the matter had assumed serious proportions. He had, he said, called the meeting all the senior staff to get to the bottom of the problem, and to find remedies for the same. “We have to send an explanation, immediately, along with measures that we will now put in place to check the ‘uncontrolled and unjustified’ spending. And these are not my words.”

There were glum faces and a total silence in the room following this announcement. It was not that anyone was remorseful or felt guilty – none present felt that he was related to, or was the cause of, the present crisis in any manner possible. Finally, it was the finance manager, the bespectacled old Mr Fred, who spoke.

“Our accounts do not show any alarming increase in spending. What with increasing costs…” Mr Fred began, but was snubbed instantly by Supeboss.

“It is not normal to have any increase at a time when the company is undertaking austerity measures. I should have been kept informed of any lapses on financial discipline. Why was all this happening behind my back,” asked Superboss.

That stumped Mr Fred, and rightly so. For one, there was nothing very unusual, by way of spending, that had taken place in the current year. Fred had also kept Superboss informed of every expenditure, not only by getting prior approvals, but also by briefing him at regular intervals. Therefore the charge of working behind his back was something that was not easy to respond to, short of bluntly pointing out that Superboss was lying. This step was probably premature, and a little drastic, and so Fred kept quiet.

His silence was however taken as an admission of guilt. Another round of lecture by Superboss, this time directed against Fred, ensued. This too however failed to resolve the two issues at hand – identifying the problem areas and finding solutions. Having been blamed on totally unjustified grounds, Fred seemed to throw in the towel, and it was evident from his demeanor that he was not likely to offer anything concrete to the discussion. Superboss next fixed his glare at Admin, the ‘big spender’ of the office.

The fact that Admin had not marshaled his facts and was unprepared, made his task of responding to a suspicious glare all the more difficult, and as a safe bet, he decided to mumble. This strategy usually works, but has the unavoidable side-effect of making Superboss froth at the mouth.

Musical chairs continued, but with little solid result, until it was the turn of masterly Mr A, my boss, to speak.

“While it is true that we must have a clear grip over what we are spending and especially at a time when the company is grappling with a minor crisis, a crisis that is not threatening per se, but which is serious nevertheless,” began Mr A in his inimitable style, and clearly had the audience enthralled.

Much later, he came to what we may call ‘the operative part’ – “Therefore we must set up a committee to look comprehensively into all the expenditure that we have incurred. This committee should also identify the solutions and report to Superboss without any further loss of time.”

This satisfied everyone, and the focus shifted to the composition of the committee. Fred and Admin obviously had to be a part of it, but it took some effort on part of Superboss to make Mr A agree to be a part of it. Finally, though it was a committee of equals, Superboss directed Mr A specifically to submit the report to him within a week.

By sheer stroke of luck, I got the opportunity to attend one of the meetings of this committee next week. The assistant who was taking the minutes suddenly fell ill – though some people doubted this excuse and were uncharitable enough to suggest that the cricket match in the city was the likely cause of his absence. Whatever may have been the cause of his nonattendance, the sudden vacuum, so abhorred by the bosses, was sought to be filled by a willing subordinate. I was curious to know what was going on in the committee, and readily agreed to take notes.

Right at the start of the meeting that day, I understood that Mr A was playing the role of a friend, philosopher and judge wile Admin and Fred were doing the heavy duty file work under his watchful patronage.

“Now that we have ruled out the possibility of any changes in salary and perks of managers and staff, and the committed expenditure on maintenance, we move to some purchases that were not routine,” Fred said, head buried deep into his files.

“We bought an expensive golf cart, and related equipment for our club-house. We actually do not use the cart as we don’t have a golf course of our own and as it is only Superboss and Mr X who play golf in our office. Some Gym equipment and the large LCD TV that we have ordered can similarly be looked into – again because our club house is underutilized,” declared Fred.

Mr A smiled and shook his head. “These would be false savings, as these are necessary acquisitions for the image of the company. Imagine how it would look if the CEO came to the city and wanted to invite some other CEO to our club-house, and if they wanted to have a round of golf or something. We must focus on recurring expenditure,” Mr A said. It did sound to me a little far-fetched that the CEO would invite some other CEO in our Zone, but I gave full credit to the foresightedness of Mr A to think of such a possibility. Mind boggles at the thought of us not having a golf cart in the event of CEO wanting to…….

The next item brought up for discussion by Fred was the proposed trip of Superboss to Europe for a Conference on Social Responsibility and Green Initiative. Fred put up a facile argument that the conference is not central to what we do, and that it would not add to our performance, and also that we would save much if we cancelled the trip.

But Mr A would have none of it. “It is not a recurring expenditure,” he began, but I thought that was not entirely true – Superboss’ trips being so frequent. “The trip has the sanction of the HQ and is a part of image building for the company at an international level. We must not be penny wise pound foolish, as the saying goes.”

“I think we can also not reduce the number of parties that we are throwing for the agents in five star hotels,” said Fred, finally getting in tune with the principles that were governing Mr A. “I really do not know where to look to make a saving,” lamented Fred, looking towards Admin for inspiration.

“Don’t ask me,” said Admin, “Besides the maintenance, I deal in petty expenditures.”

“Like?” asked Mr A, interested.

“Like paper cups, like catering for office meetings, like stationary, like transport,” replied Admin, annoyed. It was not clear whether he was miffed at having to deal with small expenditures or was irritated that the meeting was wasting its time on mere trifles.

“Take care of your pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves,” said Mr A. Proverbs and homilies are his strong point. It did sound a little contradictory coming right after penny wise etcetera, but Mr A persisted and Admin went into details of sums spent on a hundred different items of daily use in the office. To my untrained ears, everything sounded in order, but you cannot fool Mr A.

“Aha,” he exclaimed with satisfaction, sounding a little like Hercule Poirot. I remember a line of Poirot in Murder on Orient Express that goes something like this –“Only by interrogating the other passengers could I hope to see the light, but when I began to question them, the light, as Macbeth would have said, thickened.” For Mr A, the light was thickening.

“There has been an abnormal increase in the expenditure on paper for photocopy machine in our office,” Mr A said darkly, finally having got to the root of the malaise.

Admin and Fred were slow to pick up the clue, waffled about the fact that the actual amount spend on stationary was very small, and continued to act dumb like Dr Watson. Mr A had to explain quite in a manner that Sherlock Holmes used to do in his time – “These are tendencies that have a habit of getting out of hand if not curbed at the start. I don’t know about you, but I will write strongly about this in my report.” With iron in his tone, Mr A had made it clear that he would not allow any hanky-panky while he was in charge, and said that his report would call a spade a spade. No quarters would be given, he added, when the matter was of fiscal responsibility. However high or mighty one maybe, they should not expect leniency from Mr A. He said he did not worry about his job – he would remain true to his conscience.

It was a stirring speech, and had a sobering effect on potential dissenters. The report was later prepared and presented by Mr A to Superboss, who immediately took a liking to it. Strict remedial measures, as recommended in the report, were issued to all departments. A system of regularly monitoring the usage of paper in photocopiers was set up. Senior managers were to be held personally responsible for any lapse. The report was forwarded to the HQ that same week.

The report seemed to have satisfied the HQ for we did not hear from them regarding excessive expenditure. It satisfied Superboss, who included portions of it at the Conference on Social Responsibility and Green Initiative at Geneva, and impressed the Europeans. I am told that he got a standing ovation and a number of queries by CEOs of a number of multi-national corporations. And it definitely satisfied Mr A, who said that the most important thing was that he had not compromised with his principles.

***


The meeting

- Illustration by Tintin

 

Once in a while CEO visits our zone and holds a meeting with the staff. The preparation for this meeting begins from the day the date of the visit is announced – sometimes up to six months in advance. During this period of preparation, everyone is expected to focus solely on the task of making it a success. Superboss normally kick-starts the preparation with….yes, you got it, a meeting.

The inaugural preparation meeting did not have an auspicious start. A few department heads came late as they were busy attending to some important clients. The air-conditioner stopped working and a mechanic had to be called to check the wiring. And, as if this was not enough, tea was served lukewarm and in cups that Superboss took an instant dislike of.

Superboss began on a somber note. “If this is how we are going to hold the CEO’s meeting I may as well fire the whole bunch of you and resign. No use getting humiliated in presence of the top brass and then get fired.”

Dude came running and glared at the caterer. Admin glared at Techie, who in turn ‘shhh-shhed’ the mechanic. The mechanic, who was pulling a red colored wire jutting out of the wall, paused. Mr A shook his head sadly at the display of such monumental inefficiency. Admin hung his head in shame, for he is notionally responsible for anything that goes wrong – infrastructure-wise.

Superboss was not to be placated with this display of grief. He demanded to be informed immediately of all the steps that had been taken so far – beginning with a report from Admin.

Admin, and in fact all of us, had expected the preparations to gather momentum slowly, starting with opening statement of intent by Superboss. A short-circuited start threw Admin off, and he faltered. “Umm..err..” he said.

Since I was deputed to take the minutes of that meeting, I can recount the proceedings of the meeting with a fair degree of accuracy. After another round of generalized observations by Superboss regarding the overall competence of the departmental heads, we finally got down to the main agenda of the meeting thus:

“This meeting hall is in shambles,” Superboss said. “It has to be renovated – new blinds, carpets and sofa-covers. I want the samples to be brought to me today. All wiring works have to be completed by this weekend.” He glared at the mechanic, who had a feeling that he was not wanted. He also glared at Admin, who also had the same feeling.

Admin coughed and tried to introduce an element of prudence in the proceedings – “The covers are new, maybe dry-cleaning them…”

But Superboss would have none of it. “Samples today,” he said curtly and continued. “Mr X will supervise preparation of all folders and documents that are to be placed in the meeting, and also the presentation. Show me the presentation on Monday. Do not repeat last year’s.”

It has been our tradition to repeat the standard presentation, made ages ago by some junior (we have forgotten name of the author of the masterpiece), in all the meetings. Where would he get material for a new presentation, Mr X thought, and it showed on his face.

“All computers and projectors are to be in working order. I do not want the repeat of last year,” he said, looking ferociously at Techie. Techie thought it prudent not to remind the boss that the CD brought by the CEO on that occasion, the one that had failed to work, was later discovered to be a blank. He nodded humbly.

“Mr A will supervise the catering,” Superboss announced. It was the domain of Admin, and this was a major shift in traditions.

Mr A did not have a good feel about this. He avoided jobs as a policy – important or otherwise. He knew jobs were trouble, and never worth the effort. Admin, on the other hand, had mixed feelings. He disliked catering and was glad to be rid of it, but he also disliked so public a demotion.

Superboss assigned other tasks to relevant persons, called for more suggestions, finally gave his concluding remarks, and ended the meeting by asking me to circulate the minutes with clearly assigned action points.

When I reached the office of Mr A, I found him waiting for me. “David,” he said, “let’s finalize the minutes.” I said I was yet to make it. He thought over it and said that we might as well prepare it together and finish the job.

The document that came out of the hard work put in by Mr A shows the truth behind the old adage – ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. In the paragraph titled Catering was written the following text – “Selection of caterer and finalization of menu – Mr A. Overall coordination, manpower deployment, supervision – Admin.” This masterstroke had a potential to sow seeds of bad blood, but Mr A took the calculated risk. “Admin might object,” I pointed out. Mr A was however sure of his move – “He cannot. He cannot just wash his hands off important administrative functions,” he said.

Whatever misgivings Admin may have had about the minutes, he did not protest. Although I sensed a distinct hostility in my dealings with him in the next few months, the matter of was never raised by him.

The preparations began in right earnest. Mr X drafted a lot of juniors in his team to prepare a new presentation. In a review meeting to finalize the power-point, Mr X showed us a 45-slide comprehensive presentation, in which it was difficult to decide whether the slides were worse or the presentation of them. Each slide had a different colour pattern, lots of text and many had music and video links. Techie had a hard time making the computer perform all the tasks simultaneously, and Superboss gave his frank opinion about Techie and his department.

Civil engineering work in the meeting hall started in full swing, and it looked that a miracle was needed to get the work finished in time. The look of the meeting hall, where all the review meetings took place, kept Superboss in a foul mood during this period. The silver lining on an otherwise clouded horizon was the activities of Mr A. He started with a proposal of sixty item heavy-weight menu that impressed Superboss. If approved in toto, it had the potential of causing financial ruin for our office, and this was pointed out by Admin. Reluctantly, and after much resistance, Superboss and Mr A agreed to pruning of the menu, but they did not compromise on hiring a particularly costly caterer.

It would be difficult to recount the details of the D-day. Suffice to say nothing unexpected happened. CEO is a cheerful roly-poly man, who appreciated the snacks and even asked to be introduced to the caterer for a private function. During the presentation he was mostly busy on his mobile phone, and was overheard telling his wife that he would shop for her later in the day. The fact that music did not start during the presentation on two occasions, was hardly noticed. The recently redone meeting hall looked simple yet elegant, and the taste of Superboss was appreciated by one and all.

“Remember David,” Mr A told me later, sharing his wisdom, “the key to hosting a successful meeting is having a well thought out agenda. One must anticipate, and have alternative plans for everything. And in no case, must one panic.”

I will surely not remember these wise words later in my life, but when confronted with tough times, I would ask myself – “What would Mr A have done in this situation?” And I knew that by answering this question, I would be able to manage.

 

***


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