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BW Businessworld

The Best Laid Plans of Men

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Uday Basu was very angry. What made that worse was the fact that his MD, Ajit Saigal, was playing a covert game. Very simply, Ajit wanted Uday, sales director, to leave Delaware. Uday who had put in 17 years at Delaware, was seen as one of the better managers, with a dependable sales prowess that had seen the whole business actually gain great robustness during his tenure. 

Not only that, Saigal wanted him out by 1 February, and wished to make a suitable announcement by the first week of March.

This was the first time Uday was even hearing of such a plan and it came without any reasons. Why? What was brewing? He asked his close friend and ex-Delaware manager Brian, who had quit when he married another Delaware manager, "If my performance is bad, should not sales be plummeting? We are still No. 1 or No. 2 in almost all categories in the industry. Morale of team is high… then what is it? And what is going to happen on 1 February?"

Uday had a serious confrontation with Saigal when the latter began to mount pressure on him to fix his last date, adding an unsavoury ultimatum for good measure (see ‘Plotting And Blotting A Career Path', BW, 20 February). And Uday had exploded: "If I do not accept? What do you mean!" The crux was an exit package that Saigal wanted Uday to accept and clear out as fast as possible. Angry, Uday had refused to heed any of Saigal's words and instead asked to talk to the president of the Asia Region, Sudhir Narayanan. 

Saigal instead arranged for Uday to have a telecon with the president of Asia's HR, Mark Steiner. Uday did not mind that — after all it did indicate that they were prepared to discuss and arrive at a better level in the negotiations. Mark was all sweetness and fairness. He said that he particularly and Delaware really valued Uday's contribution and did care about being fair to him. Plus, he offered to factor in enough time so that Uday could find a job suited to his needs. Relieved, Uday captured their talk in an email to Mark and copied it to Sudhir Narayanan, Saigal and India HR head, Prahlad Uppal. 

Mark had been engaging and understood where Uday was coming from. "I fully comprehend," were his words. But India's HR head assigned Thomas Varghese (AVP, HR) to speak to Uday. Thomas called Uday on the intercom and said, "Hey, Basu! After you spoke to Mark, Ajit is now making a huge exception in your case. He has added one more month for you to stay on and look for a job! So you do get to stay till 31 January!"

Uday: What about the exit package?

Thomas: No change there… we consider that our final proposal – from the top management, as it were. And you have to accept it quickly and agree with the announcement of your resignation immediately, as they want to make an official announcement on 1 January.

Uday: I don't agree, Thomas. The package does not recognise my 17 years! Anyway, this is between me and my direct line manager, Ajit. I will like to discuss with him directly; not through you Thomas, or even Mark. 

Uday was now deeply disappointed in Ajit. Why would he not pick up the phone, or walk across the floor and have a chat with him face to face? He would later tell Brian: "Ajit fails his people everytime..." Uday realised that it was during times like this that Delaware's mask fell revealing its falseness.

Uday also noticed that all of Ajit's dialogues and mails to him had been without recourse to Mark. He now decided he would call Ajit's bluff by CCing all the mails to Mark and Uppal. Writing to all three he highlighted the differences in their exit proposal to him versus what they had offered to his predecessors. Uday was now convinced that once Mark saw what Ajit was proposing as the compensation, he would see how unfair the India management was being to him and would step in to correct the situation.

A big shock was in store. Within hours of his email, Uppal, the HR head for India, called him and in a friendly tone said, "Hey, Basu! How you doing? You know, we got your mail to Mark and in fact all three of us read it together. Now this is what Ajit has to say: you probably want more time to decide, so if you do not accept Ajit's offer – which is technically Mark's offer as well —  Ajit will make the following announcement on 1 January anyway – Uday Basu preparatory to leaving Delaware is handing over charge and the entire sales team will report to Indira Varshney, who is taking over from Basu, etc.

Uday was not sure if he was more humiliated or shocked. This was not merely unethical, it was now covert blackmail.

And Indira Varshney? This was a crazy new angle...what is going on?

Sitting alone in his 14th floor office, Uday wrote to Steiner, Saigal and Narayanan: "I am alarmed that you not only want me out but you come with an agenda as well. I find this conduct contrary to all that Delaware has stood for.

Sudhir, you as leader and hence conscience keeper, and Mark, you as the custodian of Delaware's values, should I take it that you endorse what is going on? Then again, what have I asked for that I elicit responses that are animus? And what kind of leader does not talk to his director directly, especially when he is sacking him?

Not even an hour passed and Uday received a reply from Mark, "Ajit will talk to you one-on-one next week."

The following week, as promised, Uday met Ajit for 15 minutes. At this meeting, Ajit said, "We are left with no option, Uday. If you do not agree with this proposal, Asia will issue the announcement."

Uday felt extremely slighted. But he said, "I do not understand you! You are bent upon insulting and humiliating."

Saigal: I offered you Rural MR; you did not take it.

Uday: So you say ‘jump dog', and I jump? Why is it that you once thought I knew best what strategic decisions I should make on the field, but that I would be helpless and stupid when it comes to making a decision about my career? If tomorrow you are asked to resign from India but take up Nepal or Bangladesh, will you?  It's about relevance, Ajit. And when you give something irrelevant, you are in fact showing your irreverence, nay, disinterest!

On his way out, Uday's phone rang. It was Brian. "Hey, come over. I was just setting some coffee, join me. Oh, you just met the bad man? How did it go?"

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Uday: Oh never mind! They are all in this together. It's humiliating. Until now I was fighting to hold my own in an organisation that I loved, worked for, and held very close to my heart. Now, with the scales having been scraped off by these three gentlemen, I do not want any of this. This was dog eat dog. Saigal is mauling me to curry favour with his bosses, win cheap brownie points and get a pat on the back. So is Mark and so is Uppal... a whole chain of back scratchers.

As he finished the call, his mobile beeped a text message alert. It was from Maya. "Meet us at the Wayside Inn. Ambi is with me."

Ambi Kesavan was the HR head for regional coordination, India, a parallel of Uppal. He was a senior resource, and was slated to move into an overseas posting soon. Why Ambi? wondered Uday as he drove out to the Inn. Greeting him warmly Ambi said, "Nasty, all this. Sorry how it is panning out. I feel a lot for your anguish and really wish it would not have turned out like this."

Maya: Tell me, why do you think Ajit wants you out of the way? Were there other issues at play?

Uday: Nothing I can think of. But yes, we had our share of differences, which to my mind, is normal in a healthy management environment. Like he likes to, and there were a number of instances, particularly during crises, when expected results did not materialise. He would call the lower levels and talk directly to them, and the managers above disliked it! Like he is now dealing through Thomas and not his boss Uppal! See?

Ambi: You also disagreed with the Board several times last year.

Uday: Yeah, but that is what a Board is for, right? To debate and argue? 2010 was bad for the whole industry, not just us. The Board was asking managers to change their plans practically every month or second month, as results were not coming as expected. Managers would present Plan One, get the approval, and just as they would get it off the ground, the Board would ask them to drop Plan One and try Two. And the same would happen to Two as well. 2010 was knee jerk, chaotic and frightened. It did not help anyone. In a matter of three months, we changed plans thrice! And then the Board blamed the managers saying they are responsible for not achieving the plans. It was very messy, stressful and disorienting. There was such a huge amount of morale loss at ground level. And here we were all killing ourselves trying to keep morale up.

So yes, tensions between us were growing. We both experienced frustration, but its par for the course. What top management job comes without all this? That is how it is in every organisation. I see that dynamism as a positive, as healthy. But Ajit wanted a sales head who would be aligned with his way of managing the organisation.

The recession also changed our lives. Ajit joined in 2009 and wanted to show fabulous results. So he pushed and pushed and pushed... sales were uninspiring, markets were depressed, offtakes were poor. What to do? Ajit has sacked me to show that he has made me accountable for poor sales in 2009 and 2010. That is my take. But only he knows the truth. 

Maya: Wonder what ever happened to Delaware? In the past 10 years, one has seen a steady decline in respect. I have seen CEOs come since 1986... I see a growing diffusion of focus — from organisation to self. Did you at any time feel a lack of respect?

Uday: These are perspectives, Maya. In the face of survival, I am not sure one, save the Gandhi himself, can remain respectful. In this case, a lot is at stake for Ajit. He is young, dapper, wants to take the whole world in his arms... the choices are tough to make. We learnt all this in the field. He is unfortunately having to manage disappointment as an MD. Bad for the business, but if youth is the choice of Delaware, then it comes with incomplete experience, I guess.
 
"He said that he would like to change the leadership for sales and I actually viewed it as a captain's view of the company. So nothing disrespectful, this is the obligation of any manager to choose his team member. That is how I saw it. Then when he offered me RMR, I thought I could negotiate and ask for another position, because I was seeing it all as a cabinet shuffle. But when he said RMR or nothing, then it became apparent that he was twisting my arm.

"Disrespect happened later, when we were negotiating the exit package. I thought all that was tasteless; including Saigal avoiding me after that. What had I done? If I had committed a crime, he may probably be justified. So why was he so cagey? And what is the story of Indira Varshney here?"

Ambi: Here is the official line. We are an organisation committed to gender diversity. Indira is ready for a senior business role but before that Ajit wants her to be in a gruelling function like sales, before he sets her up in a business role. Therefore, he wants Indira in the hot seat before his own appraisal in September 2012. Thus he will be Mr. Goody two shoes! Of course, this is entirely my reading.

Maya cursed unabashedly. Uday had run out of expression. Ambi looked very pathetic. "You can't be serious," said Uday.

Ambi: You will find this out yourself. I am telling you this sooner to save you humiliation later, especially since I know that Indira and you are such good friends.

Maya: I am all for women to grow and growl and all that. But isn't this stupid? Are you sure, Ambi? This is the most harebrained idea I ever came across. Why is it that our policies for women are always so stupid, hasty, frightened and so utterly idiotic? We see this as a country, now we see it in our organisation!

Ambi: International farmaan. Gender diversity ratios are now weighted, not counted. That means even if you have less women, it is okay as long as they are in senior jobs. Look, I am not commenting on all this as I am not in policy. This is a ham-headed leadership and I have to earn my bread!

That evening, Uday wrote to Ajit, Mark and Narayanan: "After 17 years of service to Delaware, I am told the organisation is unable to give me any opportunities for growth. I am, therefore, being asked to leave. I also understand that this is being done to help Indira Varshney's career growth.

"Since that is so, I am willing to leave, primarily out of great regard for Indira. But I want a commitment from you that you will treat me with fairness and compensate me in a manner fitting a senior manager of this company.

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"Until you get back with a fair proposal, do keep my departure confidential. Which naturally means you cannot make an announcement of any kind. No covert hints to the press, no rhetoric to the management committee." 

A knee-jerk reply came from Thomas in HR, copying the other men who for some reason would not talk to Uday directly: "This is what we propose as the text of our announcement:

"Uday Basu is leaving Delaware after 17 years to pursue his own interests. As head of sales, he has clocked for us many successes. Taking over from him will be Indira Varshney..." Blah followed by more blah.

And then, "The top management of Delaware thanks Uday for all his years of service and wishes him the best in the future."

Uday (in a mail to Saigal): HR has sent me a mail where you have been copied. I had said this before, please do not communicate anything till we have finalised my compensation.

Meanwhile, Kaushik Kashyap, a headhunter friend, advised Uday, "Don't accept any artificial project head position. It will raise suspicions among potential employers. It is better to say that the company was unable to find better growth avenues for you."

By 4 pm, another mail came from Thomas describing the compensation:

"You will be given a sum equivalent to six months' salary. You can remain on company payroll for another six months. You can keep the car, but not the driver. You must hand over the company accommodation, but you may move into the company guest house in the suburbs."

Uday called Ajit. "How can you even suggest a compensation such as this? I have another 12 years' service left with the organisation. Let us not forget that. For 17 years' service you give me six months' salary?"

Ajit: No. You are also getting to remain on the payroll for a year, so effectively you are getting nearly one month's salary for every year of service – 12 months in salary plus 6 months in compensation.

Uday: You talk like a broker. People who were given VRS last year — middle level managers, level-2 and level-1 managers — were given six months' salary even though they had been here for only 4-5 years. And for 17 years you give me six months?

Ajit: Don't keep saying 17 years service. You were paid for the 17 years. So that has no significance. We are keeping you for a year till you find another job. And you forget you were offered the RMR job, which you declined.

Uday met Ambi. "I am being stripped of my dignity now! It is embarrassing fighting over this. What makes it worse is that Ajit can actually sit there and talk down to me and the only reason I cannot do a thing is because I am on my way out!"

Ambi: No, you are mistaken. Ajit cannot  do anything. He knows that. You can choose to not leave. Then he will have to sack you and that will splash the mud on his face. So my advice is: remain calm, polite and detached. Write a firm letter and ask for one month's salary for every year of service over and above. Don't request. Tell them this is what you expect. And conclude that they cannot announce your exit till you agree. Don't worry, this will go back and forth several times before being finalised.

What you have asked for is fairer than what they have offered, so they will increase the offer. Be patient and co-operative. Arre, they cannot afford a public fight with you! Threats? Nonsense. And one more advise: get Indira on board. She needs to know this.

Uday looked around the office of Delaware. What a shame, he thought, just as Ambi muttered, "We always hire right. Not once do I think we have made a bad choice. But it is what we do to people once they join... perfectly good people are mauled by a system of greed and glory."

Classroom Discussion
Could Saigal have instead partnered Basu to develop an effective sales succession plan?

To be continued

casestudymeera(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-03-2012)