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BW Businessworld

Case Study: But Then, There Is Kedar

Abhinav Arya drove at a steady pace, letting his car coast at times, patiently waiting at signals, letting life be, as his mind played out the episode of Kedar Kaushik, in slow thoughtful flow. Abhinav was walking around in the world of Kedar examining every little thing there and marvelling at how wonderful everything was.

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Abhinav Arya drove at a steady pace, letting his car coast at times, patiently waiting at signals, letting life be, as his mind played out the episode of Kedar Kaushik, in slow thoughtful flow. Abhinav was walking around in the world of Kedar examining every little thing there and marvelling at how wonderful everything was.

The expression on Abhinav’s face did not change at all. It was a pleased, happy, marvelling look and, for all intent and purposes, Abhinav was not even noticing the traffic on the highway. He was verily on autopilot.

And then, there was Bela. He watched Bela too. What courage, what drive, what vision… what the hell did she see that he did not? Kedar and Bela were causing small ripples in his mind pool. Why?

Bela Barman was his star junior manager at Seggo Systems where he was Director, Operations. She was from a small city, Dharwad, extremely hardworking, adventurous and took risks with amazing aplomb.

Abhinav recalled the day Bela came to him and said, “Kedar has quit his job...” He was a little surprised, but he asked, “ To do what?” And she explained this very convoluted business idea he had. At 26, Kedar earned Rs 27 lakh as a consultant with Hexway, a worldwide consulting firm, in their malpractices division. But within four years of working, he was quitting. Why? To develop a website that would offer to people comparisons between CRM tools and thus make the optimum choice of tool they should use. Ok, but Rs 27 lakh?

In the months that followed, Bela began to look washed out, doubling as she did as caretaker of Kedar and his two friends, pitching in on the software, while also holding fort at Seggo. No partying, no fun. Bela was perpetually in debt and often asked Abhinav to pay her part of her salary by the 22nd. He preferred to lend her Rs 40,000 every month and she always returned it on the 1st only to borrow again on the 22nd. It was the house rent. Once he asked her, “What do you do with the money?”

“I look after three mad friends with a dream,” she said. Abhinav had been greatly discomfited; but he marvelled at her gumption. It took courage to choose the path she had, a path that worked on faith and nothing else, in a society that fooled around but got very pious about marriage, where she was emptying her coffers to help Kedar’s dream project, which he had been talking about since their days in grad school... How does her mind work?

Then one day, he met Kedar. Abhinav had only one question to ask, “Where did you get this courage from? You are a middle-class boy, father is some middling officer somewhere, you go and throw away a Rs 27 lakh-job? I am unable to break free from my middle class-ness, I am risk averse, I baulk over losing or wasting money even if I am earning five times what you are. What is it?

Kedar: I know if I stayed back at Hexway, I can drag on for 20 years and pretend to have purpose. And I don’t want to do that. I want to make a million dollars in the next three years and 10 million before I turn 30.

Abhinav choked. He too had goals at 30. To become a CXO before 40, and touch Rs 1 crore as remuneration before 42... incomparable of course.

Abhinav: You are 26... what will you do with the money?
Kedar: That is not relevant. But the goal must be met. Not relevant! What part of the human mind has changed to dream such dreams so that the actual money itself is irrelevant? Anyway, that was 2011. Last month, Kedar had got a $4 million funding after getting the seed money. Today, he had sent Abhinav a picture of that document on e-mail with the words: “Getting there!” What changed? Why all this now, why was it not available or possible earlier? What changed? How is it happening?

As he let himself into his apartment, his friend Rasal called. “I hear Robin has quit Teffer India?” Rasal’s son too worked at Teffer.  Abhinav was stunned. Robin was his son aged 25. Robin quit his job? He called his wife, “What is this? Did he talk to you about this?” No, he had not. What is changing?

They waited for him to return from work. Abhinav sat in the long corridor by the book shelves seeking distraction. In 1991, when his sister got married, they were very clear: no business families. Only naukriwala. But today that had changed; his niece recently married a hotelier. In the 1990s, the destination was Hindustan Lever, Tatas, P&G, ITC and Marico. There ended the choice. If you were with any of these companies, then you were considered a balanced human being. And yet, here was Robin who had blown off a Rs 20-lakh job. As a father of the 1990s, my experience is that jobs don’t come easily. Once you get a job you stay in that job. When I joined Delaware (where he worked for 20 years before changing to Seggo Systems), I did not have a plan that I would quit in five years, look for another job. I did not have a goal that I would work in a certain function, in a certain position, in a designated place. It was all about doing a job. If they sent me to Trichy, I went to Trichy. If they said Nagpur, then it was Nagpur I went to. Because it was my career going on and my chairman had told us that that was how careers got built.

At that time, life was not a 100-metre dash. Life was a marathon, you were trained to build stamina and purpose and character, slowly. They knew what you needed, you just surrendered and allowed to be built to last! Today’s MBA has a specific approach, a mindset, a vision for every three-year span! If you talk to a young finance man, he will say I want to do funds for four years, then treasury, then  taxation. Then in 15 years, I will pitch for the CFO’s job.

I was ambitious too; every year I wanted to be ranked highest. But as far as I can recall, nobody was smart enough to say “this is how I will continue to improve — to become a CEO.” People used to allow themselves to be carried across jobs and functions.

Your boss would pat you on the back and say, good job, but he sent you on your next hardship mission anyway! Tenure was not the only thing but it was the most important thing.  Two years into my training when my boss recommended my promotion, HR rapped his knuckles sharply and told him to curb his enthusiasm. “If your lad is good, give him a bonus, send him for a course, reward him for working hard but don’t take that spirit away before it has established as a habit in him! He is good? But that is why we hired him! He doesn’t get rewarded for being good.

Unlike today where you come out of a branded B-school and pick up a Rs 1-crore job.  Success parameters have also changed. Thirty per cent of the people from IIMs are joining startups, not because they want to toil it out, but because they know they will get sweat equity, they will get a significant opportunity to put their hand in the till should there be a monetisation if there is a sellout. That thought ‘I must make my first crore in the first five years’ .... tchah! It was not even in our capacity to think like that.

Today, just five years down the line, any startup can look at a valuation of $10 million! And I sit there and wonder, I worked for 25 years and I have not yet amassed a net worth of $10 million.  And these guys, in three years they create something and are able to sell it off for a fortune!

As he reflected on his past and his son’s present, staring the new reality in the face, Madhavi walked up to him fearing he was upset.

Abhinav: It’s crazy, there is one part of the world that is spinning at a far faster pace than our part of the world. Their rules all seem to be differently drawn up. I have never heard of anything like this. As far as I know, you do not quit without another firm offer in hand. I could never have had the guts to go tell my boss I am quitting.

Yet there was Kedar….

Even if Madhavi was agitated over Robin’s move, Abhinav had been able to pass the tough stage, thanks to the daily unfolding story of Bela and Kedar that he got to see sitting in the front benches. Kedar who quit his coveted consulting job, slowly baring to him the method in the madness even if, to Abhinav, the method was worse than the implied madness. So, if Abhinav was not shell-shocked over Robin’s resignation, he was definitely shaken. Meanwhile, Madhavi and he scripted what they would not say to Robin, what they would not ask and how they will stay cool....

And... Robin walked in, startled to see both parents standing within feet of the door. Abhinav was more startled as if he had been caught thinking. And unplanned, unpolished out came the first question:

Abhinav: Hua kya? Had a fight?

But before Robin could respond, Abhinav had the balm, “Yeh sab to hota hai. Organisations are battlefields where egos are laundered (and he hated that metaphor even as he said it.) Trick is to outlive your bad boss, because good bosses happen!” And one after another came arrows from Abhinav’s quiver — truisms collected over a 25-year career. Abhinav’s battle scars began to speak. Then, wrapping up, he said, again, “Hua kya?”

Robin: I just got bored to death with what I was doing. I went and asked my boss for something else to do, and he said, ‘This is what there is, this is how we make money. You ensure the profit centre turns in profits; that is how you get paid. Chill out, relax.’ Three years ago, as a trainee, I was selling ketchup. Today I am selling mustard sauce. I am bored to death trying to develop commercials where people are made to look like their life depends on Risso Mustard Sauce. For God’s sake... The template used to launch ketchup has been adopted for mustard. That was red, this is yellow. I can’t do this.
Madhavi: These are not the reasons why you quit! You need to have a steady job!
Robin: Why? Why should I have a steady job?
Madhavi: Eh? How will you earn?
Robin: Like I have been, till now!
Madhavi: But you just quit your job!
Robin: Yeah, I know! I quit what I didn’t like and I will find what I like.
Madhavi: And what is that?
Robin: I don’t know! I’ll know soon.
Madhavi: I don’t get it. If you don’t know, then how do you know that you will like what you are going to get?
Robin: Because I will accept only what I like!

Madhavi was now more confused than ever. “And what if you don’t get what you like? Within the month if you don’t get what you like, will you take whatever job is available?

Robin: Are you crazy? Why would I do that? I don’t want to turn out like Dad! At 30, he was working till 2:00 in the morning; at 50, he is working till 2:00 in the morning. What has changed for Dad? Nothing has changed, Mom! Do I see myself like that at 30? At 40? No. No, Mom.
Abhinav: The solution is not in quitting. (Briefly he waffled about every life being a story… then exited that to…) you can’t quit. A new job only seems exciting because it is new. That is all. Finally, bosses, organisations and jobs are the same world over.
Robin: Wow, Dad! Ok. But look, it’s not about just the job getting boring, but the people I am working with are also boring. They are not moving in life. They are all post 40. They don’t take risks, they are not adventurous...
Abhinav: Sounds reasonable to me. Have you a broad plan as to what you would like to do for a career, what kind of organisation you want?
Robin (in clipped style): Nothing. All I know is I do not like what I am doing and I would like to do something else. What that ‘something else’ is, I don’t know. But I have reflected over a period of time and concluded that this is definitely what I don’t want to do. I explored to see if something interesting could happen in my job...
Abhinav: Yes, exactly! Why don’t you talk to your boss and tell him you want something new?
Robin: I did, Dad. I did. And what he offered was worse than what I am doing currently. And what he had was all that he had; no choices. Can’t you see this organisation is really not vibrant, is not robust, is not exciting? I feel sorry for him! You know what, Dad? I am not excited by even his job, if he offered me that! So, forget about what else he was offering me!

Would Kedar do that? Abhinav saw his son from close up, unlike Kedar who he saw from ‘afar’. Could it be that he saw his son’s failings but had never seen Kedar’s faults? So, was he biased? But then, what parent was confident about his child?

Now, as he looked at his son who had just told him he had smoked away his job, Abhinav was unable to stay rational.

Today’s young are used to greys, he thought. In fact, they are comfortable operating in the grey zone. They wade, waddle and cut their path through the mess. And, if a clearing shows, they pitch their tent. But we were very cautious. If I had a meeting with my director, then the night before I did not sleep! I went over my presentation 10 times and rehearsed and made notes and bullet points... But today these young fellows walk in yawning, after partying.

Grudgingly he admitted, the Robins and Kedars are willing to take the grey and say — I don’t know where I am going but wherever I am going it is a better place. But is that right? 

To be continued...

Read Analysis By Rajan Chhibba
Read Analysis By Lalit Bhagia

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 23-02-2015)