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BW Businessworld

Plotting And Blotting A Career Path

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Maya Pai waited as Ajit Saigal, the MD of Delaware India signed the letters, humming a non-existent tune. Maya was Saigal's secretary; everyone knew the MD's office would be in shambles if Maya was away for even a day. In fact, she was greatly respected.

"Uday was here this morning," she began slowly, referring to Uday Basu, Delaware's sales director. "He asked to see a copy of his mid-year appraisal. I noticed you have not filed a copy... have you forgotten to? Quite unlike you though..."

Saigal: Well Maya, between us, Uday is going. I need to shepherd the process sensibly so that he goes without kicking and screaming. Mark and I have been working on this for over a year, which is why there is nothing to his mid-year 2011 appraisal.

Maya: Oh! So...

Saigal: Let's leave it there. If he comes back, tell him some story. And if he asks me, I will tell him you would know.

Uday is going.... What had led to this? Just two days ago was Uday's appraisal; it was held right here in the MD's office. She remembered Uday coming in and even asking her to book his tickets to Ooty as his secretary was on leave and there had been some silly joke they made about that... all had been normal. In fact, when he came out of Saigal's cabin (rather quickly) she had even heard them discuss a thriller at the door. And in less than 48 hours, Uday is going... Saigal's tone now appeared to conceal a plan.

What Maya did not know was that at the appraisal, within seconds of his sitting, Saigal had said, rather directly: "Uday, we will get to the details soon after, but it will be sensible for us to set the platform for our meeting today so that we both don't waste time. I believe that sales needs a new leader.... So now you have two choices: One, move to rural MR as their head,  or two, leave Delaware."

No further explanation followed. But the abruptness and urgency with which he had said it all was very disturbing.

But Uday noticed how much Saigal squirmed as he dealt with the moment. So Uday said, "It is much more difficult for you Ajit to say this to me than for me to hear it... I will think over your proposal to lead the small business. And if I choose to instead quit, I really expect from Delaware and from you personally to be treated with respect and fairness."

Saigal chose to be quiet but pushed the two-sheet appraisal towards Uday artlessly. Silence took over the judgement. Uday did not even look at the sheet. In his heart he knew those sheets would contain a justification for what he now saw as a political strategy, of which Ajit was either a part or the orchestrator. Uday reminded himself that when it came to power, the best men are rendered helplessly smitten.

As Uday got up to leave, Saigal said, "Of course, we will treat you with respect, Uday! Come back in two days with your choice...."

Uday: George R.R. Martin says in Meat House Man: ‘Of all the bright cruel lies they tell you, the cruelest is the one called love.' We can adapt that to ‘Respect'. You must read
this book...

Saigal: You read too much fantasy, don't you?

Uday: But in George's words, ‘we read fantasy to find colors again'!

As he left Saigal's office, Uday thought, here is a man with whom I have a perfectly healthy personal relationship, yet he is now being challenged to take a professional decision that is going to lead to unpleasantness. At the end of the day, we are nothing but hunting dogs who are let loose in the marketplace to go grab the top line numbers. And when we sit in our kennels licking our wounds, we do feel terrible about all those people we had to run over.

Strange, he thought, same time last year the words were glowing — "great performance. Uday and his team have designed a new market strategy that in one sweep addresses the small kiosks right up to the hypermarkets, with least disruption and maximum efficiency...." Saigal had been all gung-ho. Ditto during the mid-year review. Not a frown or even a doubtful word. Except that, Saigal had chosen not to record the mid-year praises! But was everything really alright?

Some things did not add up. For instance, in June 2011, during the review meeting, Saigal had also said, "I have been discussing your move with Mark (Steiner, AMEA —Africa, Middle East and Asia region — HR president) already for six months...."  His tone had then seemed quite normal, but today those words rang with heavy significance. What had they been discussing? What move? And why? And is this appraisal verdict linked to that?

That was when Uday met Maya in the lunch room separately and said, "I need your help with something. Can you give me a copy of my June 2011 review?" Maya agreed she would, but she had not found them. That intrigued her. Saigal was fanatical about papers being in place. Where was the review sheet?

That was how we heard her ask Saigal, more out of anxiety at not finding it in the files, and in replying to what she had not asked him Saigal had planted the seed of doubt.

When Maya went to give him the bill for his Ooty tickets, Uday asked about the review sheet. Maya, fresh from the loaded exchange with Saigal, said, "Well, it occurs to me that it never was filed." Then they looked at each other in the manner of senior executives bound by and reverential of a sacred code of ethics. She knew what had happened. He knew she would know. But he would not ask her, nor would she tell. Such was the beauty of the moment as they both converted the loaded look into a "Well! Then that's that!", ending it with the forced spread of pursed lips into a stretch, that pretended to be a smile.

As both furiously battled with their confusion, Maya's thought pool read, "Taking into account that he is very accurate and pedantic with papers and procedures, it seems to me like Saigal decided not to leave a trail... Nor was he intending for you to take corrective action. My dear friend, what you will not see is that as early as June, he had made his decision about you."  

When Maya left, Uday thought, what lies behind this web of lies? The most recent review before the current diabolic one in November 2011, was in June and there was not even a hint of unhappiness. Wasn't it just September 2011 that Saigal was telling him to guide him on Little's Meadow? Then what explained the exchange at his year end appraisal? None of these added up.

Uday, who had been matter-of-fact and congenial in the MD's room, was now slowly stewing in his questions and doubts. It was all triggered by a simple fact of the June report not being in the file. Maya will not lie.

As if dusting his mind, Uday shook off his chattering mind. After all, organisations worked on the back of numerous plots and plans and a part of all that demanded human blood — the removal of managers. He had worked 17 years at Delaware, enough had happened right before him. He knew. Therefore, the truth would never come out.  Saigal will hang on to the official version.

The following day, after a presentation on new territories, as they were leaving, Uday ran into Saigal in the men's room. As is wont to happen between men sharing a recent stressful encounter, Saigal filled the silence with a hasty, "So, have you given it a thought?"

Uday: I will think over the option, but more likely I will choose exit.

When Uday left the men's room, he knew he would quit. At 7 p.m., he drove straight to the home of Brian and Sara, close friends, to attend their five-year-old son's birthday. Brian had joined Delaware in the same batch as Uday had. Brian married very late, and another colleague Sara, and then both quit Delaware.

Brian: When do you have to let him know?

Uday: Tomorrow.

Brian: Is he stupid? Will he make a divestment decision in 48 hours?

Uday: All organisations have a people strategy that hums beneath all that they do. It does not have a label or a definition. It's just there. And top management falls in line and knows how to keep it running. Funny thing is organisations believe their people strategy is not visible. But it shows; like a stain — growing brighter after every wash.

Sara: That is why your story rankles. In fact, yours is a story of a people strategy gone wrong, misused, abused by a system!

"So June 2011 is when Saigal is double faced. Sitting before you is the mask that is telling you that you are good, just tweak this or that, all is going well, no complaints, you are doing a great job...normal positive discussion. And behind this mask he is hiding his truth and strategising your exit with the AMEA region head.

"And six months later, he is asking you to leave! When was this people strategy written?

"He has nailed his coffin by saying: I have been discussing your move for eight  months. But to save his back, he has not put down your appraisal of June 2011 in writing. Important is how his mind works. So he does a routine chat and makes usual polite sounds, using words to fill the space and time..."

Brian: I guess they have decided that they want to replace you. Everything that follows will therefore be towards that. They are not in the business of managing human emotions; they are in the business of earning profit.
A few days later, Saigal called Uday. "So the Rural MR position is out?"

Uday: It does nothing for my career, Ajit. Besides I am not a marketing person. Anyway, as I told you, I prefer to quit.

Saigal: I understand, Uday, and I have already asked Prahlad Uppal to do up your exit package with fairness. I have told him to be respectful of your stature and needs.   

(Later) Brian: How do people select their words? Why does Saigal mention ‘respect'?

Uday: Well, he offered me the rural MR job and ‘showed me respect', I guess.

Brian: You are kidding, right?  That job was proposed in order to make a formal case, that Delaware is giving you an opportunity inside the company. I have been there, Uday. That is a grade 2 job, you are three levels above G2. The fact that rural MR is fitted with a G2 manager means that the size of the business does not require someone of your level. Why aren't you seeing this? Saigal knew you will not accept this.

Sara: I agree there. His thinking is easy to see — just pretend to be the enabler, make any offer. Then Uday will reject the offer and Saigal can sit back and say, "Well, I tried. Too bad that he is being difficult!"

Elsewhere, Maya was challenging the head of HR in India, Prahlad Uppal. Mysteriously wording her pent up anger, she said, "How is it that HR is able to pump millions into hiring, retention, training, development, and then when it chooses to, it is easy to unceremoniously discard the resource?"

"Excuse me?" said Prahlad, most confused. And Maya had already reached for another bullet, as she added, "How can an organisation be so lacking in grace and elegance that it ‘gets rid' of a long-standing employee, a senior manager who has directed the fortunes of the company in the past, but does not feel the need to treat him with the sophistication and class it shows to a new employee it is wooing? How can your HR system be so shortsighted that it believes that employees can be treated badly and the rest of the organisation will not notice?"

Prahlad: Has there been a case of moral turpitude? What has happened?

Maya: I should not be saying this, but Uday quit. Let's say he was made to quit.

Prahlad was distressed but in control. "Ajit has a plan for the organisation..."

Maya: Oh. So you know! How shameful...

Prahlad: Maya it sounds cruel, but if you lift the corporate veil, you will find a human being with needs and wants, not a dispassionate servant of God, please. Expecting care and patience etc., is silly. Loyalty is not a part of a company's vision or people strategy and if they say so, don't believe it. Employee loyalty to company is expected. Company loyalty to employees is logically fallacious.

Three weeks later, HR's Joseph Thomas (Prahlad Uppal's junior) met Uday with the offer.

Uday: Are you seriously proposing this or is this some kind of joke?

Thomas: Why don't you study it?

Uday: Where is the mystery in a proposal of ‘one month's salary for every completed year of service subject to a maximum of seven years'? It is blatantly unfair. It does not take into account my 17 years' service, of which six years were on the Board! I would like to talk to Ajit please;
not you.

Thomas: I was expecting this reaction...

Uday: What a wise man, yet not so wise after all. Yet you chose to speak to me thus!

Later to Brian: That was a game... negotiations tactics from the company's side!

Sara: Fascinating. The top management, it seems now, are a bit foolish and disconnected from reality. They expect to get extremely intelligent people when they hire, and after hiring ignore that their employees continue to remain intelligent! So, what is he saying now?

Uday: He has welcomed me to ‘be in touch with Saigal' and ‘see what he has to offer'.

Uday knew that a new game had been initiated. The next day he called Saigal, asking to meet him. "I am pressed for time, Uday, leaving for the airport in the next 20 seconds. Either we reschedule or we talk on the phone?"

Uday: Oh! Then we will wait for you to return, Ajit. Can't discuss my future on the phone. 

Saigal: I am not back till the 22nd, and we do need to hurry, Uday.

(Later to Brian):  This is not the Ajit I knew. He was a friendly, straight forward human being. Even now, I feel he is crumbling under pressure... or his ego. Difficult to say because power is like that!

Saigal wanted Uday out; he had communicated as much, no matter how poorly. Now he couldn't be bothered by small details like ‘closure'. Or even finesse. That was for the system to deliver. Delaware had become a tired organisation that was running faster than its legs could carry it, except, not always in the right direction, mused Uday.

Yet, all this seemed out of sync with the personality of Ajit Saigal as Uday had known him...

Meanwhile, Thomas came back dutifully with Delaware practices around the world;  France did that, China did that, Americas did this... "but in India we can offer you only according to local policy, you see," he said.

Uday: Indian policy? Can you show the policy? There is no such thing. In India we compensate at the discretion of the MD. Talking of policy, throughout my 17-odd years with Delaware, I never worked according to ‘policy'. I worked 14-16 hours a day, which is not what the Shops & Establishments Act prescribes. Two, even if there is no legal prescription, I expect fairness and justice from the company where I have spent more than 17 years! Is this what you would offer our expat directors in India? 

Thomas: Uday, you are not an expat and should not compare your package with the package of expatriates...
Uday: I do not agree with you. So, please go and bring me a fair proposal from the company.

Uday then wrote to Saigal, expressing complete disagreement with the proposal. Marking the board he requested fair play.

Two days later, Saigal called Uday from an airport. "Your expectations are not practical, Uday. You have chosen to reject the new job I have offered you. Despite that I am going out of my way to design a good package for you. You must appreciate that had it been a distress situation where we were forced to retrench you, your claim for more would be tenable. Even that, I would doubt a lot. I cannot offer you anything more than what Thomas has indicated.

"Look. I do not want a confrontation with you, Uday. I do not want to fight with you; I do not want unpleasantness. This need not get painful for either of us. We are agreed that you have to go and I want this to be peaceful and sensible."

Uday: That makes two of us, except I am not in agreement that I should go. I don't even know why you want me to go.
Saigal: I am in Melbourne, and cannot bleed the company on a long call. Suffice it to say that I wish to make the announcement of your exit on 1st January 2012.

Uday: In that case, no announcement can be made till the moment we agree on the terms of my departure, Ajit. And, if you are saying you have no authority to better your offer, I would like to talk to the head of the AMEA region.

Saigal: Very well. Then I will organise that!

Classroom discussion
Are trust and respect, emotions that have no context in business dealings?

To be continued...


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 20-02-2012)