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BW Businessworld

The Timeless 24/7 Diary

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“I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time” — Sheryl Sandberg

Janki vallabh raced to the door calling out instructions to the housekeeper, to her mother, to the dhobhi — as her heels went clickety-clack and her driver carrying a pile of folders and whatnot preceded her into the lift ... her mother glided noiselessly behind her with a long list, gently muttering, “And Nikki, have you bought the tickets for Shankar Mahadevan’s show? Now you promised you would...”

Mom was 81 and had a parallel to-do list for Janki as she was convinced that otherwise nothing would ever get done. Daily, she would run through her long list and ask, “What can I strike off this list today?”

Janki: Ma, you forget your list, I have mine and I am working according to that....and for God’s sake Ma, Mercy is my assistant, not my handy maid. She does not cut fruit for me, please don’t ask her to cut fruit for me ... it is so embarrassing... Ok, Ma, sorry, Ma, love you, Ma...

The lift shut and Ma walked back to the apartment muttering, ‘She has not done anything even today....’

It was 8.30 a.m. and Janki prayed the snarl points would be easy today. She had a training session with New Zealand at 10:00 a.m. IST and needed to get to her desk by 9.30.

Even as she got into the car, Mercy was on the phone. Janki cut her short and said, “Drop everything and call Genelia at ITC. There is a Shankar Mahadevan show next weekend. Tell her she has to send me two passes for the show, no matter what. My sanity depends on getting those tickets.”

Janki’s life had been turned upside down the previous day consequent to which she was to have an unscheduled, hastily put together online workshop with her New Zealand team.

Last year, Janki’s role as HR director had been broadened. But as her role unfolded she was beginning to see what they meant by ‘infinity’.

A global role was what everyone aspired to. Very broad, very wide, very far reaching ...  What fired her spirit was a feeling that she could influence the broader organisation with improvements in performance. While it was a role of a lifetime, she did not realise it would be a life without time. Janki had been so furiously busy with training and mediating and arbitrating and talking and monitoring and... that the quality of her life had changed to something she did not even find easy to describe.

As the traffic choked ahead of her, Janki found herself inching closer to her seat’s edge till she was practically leaning over her driver Ahmed’s shoulder saying, “Jaldi karo, Ahmed bhai, der ho rahi hai....” And Ahmed said, “Ji Madam, bas pahunch gaye....”

Janki was restless. She needed to get to the office 30 minutes before the workshop began as she would have to do a sound check, make sure the bandwidth is ok, and because there were 3-4 different locations in NZ from where people would log in, hence she would need to be there before they arrive. On this occasion, she had a co-facilitator from the UK. And this is how it all came to be so chaotic.

The New Zealand business had gone through a lot of transformation and providing them with coaching skills was identified as a critical need, so that line managers could effectively manage the change and enable the transformation. What was meant to be a two-day face-to-face programme had to be reworked, rescheduled and rehashed overnight.

As dynamism goes, Janki was to fly that same morning to Sydney via Airline Exx which had developed bad press since some repeated technical snags had resulted in two of their flights crashing. The previous evening, three hours before she could leave for the airport, the management of Teffer Worldwide sent out a red alert saying managers should not fly Airline Exx.

Janki groaned. This programme was so critical to not just Teffer as a whole but it was crucial to Asia Pacific which had been trying to build skills to win a new project from Europe and she had promised Derek Banner, HR for Asia, that she would prepare his region. Using technology, she decided to convert the same session into an online one and move on seamlessly with her goals. So, when the circular went out last evening, it was 7 p.m. IST and, of course, 1 a.m. the next day in Sydney and Auckland.

At 10 p.m. last night, she had to first call and wake up her HR counterpart in Auckland, Abid Latif, apologise and explain that she was not coming but the session would happen at 10 a.m. IST or 4 p.m. Sydney/Auckland time. Abid, in turn, called his assistant Lynn Burke and asked her to call Janki and take instructions. So, at her 4 a.m., Lynn was talking with great clarity to Janki. You would if it was the HR director you were talking to.

Lynn would thus have time to prepare the teams for an online session, but she, in turn, would have to organise for the six of them to sit in the conference room and hook up the big screen for them to jointly be in session with Janki, but, she would also now speak with Cora in Melbourne to have her three HR personnel to dial in and Darwin would be told in the morning.

Janki had been exhausted. Managing the detail was going to be far more exhausting than anything else. She had been up until 3 a.m. sorting, rearranging, rescheduling...

On the other side, NZ had to post haste rearrange a lot. The teams would now meet four days at 4 p.m. their time and reallocate their other meetings differently.

Janki also had to rearrange with Jeff, her UK co-facilitator. At 2 a.m. last night (UK time 10 p.m.) she had messaged him frantically: “Jeff! The NZ trip has been called off owing to some internal ruling on some airlines. But the session has to happen and I will need your help to facilitate this since the dynamics of the session will now change. Can you be online UK time 6 a.m?

Jeff who was to facilitate at NZ, was also caught in the travel rule and had to go back. Now, he needed to be with her at an ungodly 6 a.m.  Jeff hated early mornings.

Janki was quickly calculating her day that had been derailed rather badly. At  11.30, while the session would conclude,  there would follow a debrief. She would need to work with Abid in NZ to evaluate how the new format went, and if the teams got what they needed.

So, when the teams logged off and their HR head Latif took over, it was 5.30 p.m. in NZ.

Janki: What worked for you Abid? Is there anything we need to do differently tomorrow?”

Abid: I think it was grand that everything happened seamlessly and without any hiccup despite such a huge change!  The teams were already sympathetic to the change, and it is laudable that they adjusted their schedule really cheerfully.

But one thing Janki, tomorrow you will need to spend more time as people have not read up.

What happened was, after her chat with Lynn, she had hastily sent some reading references for the teams overnight, to catch up as she would now have to do less online than she would have face to face. So, she had sent page numbers of some work manual and told them to read up and be ready. But the people were not prepared for a sudden change of plans and thus a demand to also read up.  As a result, many were unable to read.

Even as Abid said that, Janki realised that at the end of today’s session, she had also given them 2-3 videos to watch and make notes.

Janki tossed the time zones around her head. Teffer Worldwide worked seamlessly but moments like these did challenge the senior managers and put them under a lot of strain. For example. Janki realised that when she finished at 11.30 a.m., it was 4.30 or 5 in Auckland. If now they had to read pages and watch videos, that would impinge their family time. Some managers also had kids in day care and out there these timings were non-negotiable unlike in India where you said, ‘Please aunty, keep her till 8 p.m.’ and aunty did so for an extra Rs 500. In most countries, respect for family time was paramount because people also valued family time.

The next day, one of the team suggested to her to put a gap between sessions... “Why don’t we have these sessions every alternate day?”

Janki’s HR manager in India, Aman Bakshi, who assisted her, said, “Doing a two-day continuous session has a certain synergy and ends up being more productive than a five-day, 90-minute deal. Because everyday has a set up time and a debrief time and a recap time and there is a certain exiting from one mode and entering the workshop mode then exiting that to enter the local India mode.... We will lose more than gain, so, please say ‘No’ to gaps between sessions.”

But Auckland was keen to get the most out of this. Abid messaged her, “The teams are very clear that 90 minutes is not helping. They want to take it up to 150 minutes for it to make sense. Let us start at 9 a.m. IST.”

There were nine line managers across Sydney and Auckland on this session. And the NZ business was critical business. Janki  looked at her clock and thought about it. How was this going to work?

If she started one hour earlier at 9 a.m. IST — then that meant Jeff in the UK would have to come online at 4.30 a.m.; or she extends it until 12.30 IST, which meant the teams in ANZ would work till 6.30 p.m. which would not be doable. And even if Jeff agreed, the IT guy in India Sudip Rao would have to come in advance to set up her IT environment.

Sudip now stood before her listening to her and checking his phone notebook to see what time slot suited him. If Auckland wanted 9 a.m. IST, Sudip would have to reach the office at 8 a.m. “I live very far away, at Badlapur,” he said to Janki. That meant he would have to leave home at 5.30 a.m.

This was not looking good. Even Janki disliked the idea. Amiable as he was,  Sudip said, “Actually family problems... ,” rather eloquently. When Janki encouraged him to elaborate, he said, “ I have to pack my kids lunch boxes and drop them at school as my wife works the night shift at an IT firm. And I have to drop my daughter to school myself.

Janki could not understand at all. Either she was tired or dull after the day. She looked at him quizzically and said, “Can’t she go with someone else for  a week?”

Sudip: Oh, no, not anymore.  Times have changed, girls, why even boys are unsafe. That is why my wife chose a night shift job so that she is available to pick them up from school at 2 p.m. In fact, her working night shift actually helps keep the kids safe. We don’t use maids, we mind the kids ourselves....

janki realised she was behind the times. The difficulties of the younger folk these days was far different she mused.

The more she thought about it, the worse it seemed because creating chaos in her own life was one thing but she saw that every change will have a ripple effect on many more lives. This cross country marathon that she ran everyday was beginning to get to her.

Janki verily lived a 24-hour day without a break, available to the phone when it beeped, to the computer when it delivered mail, to the world clock for any of her constituents to call and confer with her as they wished.

Janki slept on an average three hours in every 24-hour cycle. It usually got to her when she could see everything falling apart. As long as everything went on fine, she did not notice the difficulties.

There will be more lives that will get affected, she mused thinking about Auckland. Thinking over it through lunch, Janki told Abid in Auckland, “We can do three more days if you wish to give your teams more time.”

Just as Abid said he would check his diary and see if that worked,and signed off, Peter Fowler from the Succession Academy in Singapore, called.

The Succession Academy was another of Teffer’s HR initiative located out of Singapore, which helped plan successions, leadership issues and related workshops. Janki was yet eating her lunch and cursed the mobile phone for the intrusion.

“Hey, Jan, we need to have a call to discuss a leadership survey in North America. And we need to do this soon. “ Janki flipped the pages of her diary even as he rattled choices of dates. Oh, but the time slots and the dates were terribly inconvenient!   The dates he was giving her were precisely  when her session with ANZ would get over. So, he wanted 1 p.m. IST when it will be 3.30 p.m. in Singapore.  

Janki: Peter, that time slot does not work. We have just had a reschedule of NZ’s coaching skills module. And we are doing it as a series of webinars.

And Janki explained to him that she was just about to confirm to them three extra days.

Peter: I don’t see why. The four you are doing is just right. They should learn to extrapolate. Did you get a sign off from the head of the function?

Janki: I don’t care about all that, Peter. This is about the learning.

Peter: I thought you were completing on Monday but now you have no time! Ok, why don’t we work during your afternoon? 3 p.m. IST? My 5.30? I just need 90 min on two days.

Janki: That is not ‘just 90 min’, but 90 min over and above all else. I think if you must get value as I must give value, then we must move this to September.

Janki was exhausted juggling time, she couldn’t say a ‘no’ to Peter because he too needed that session. She couldn’t say a ‘yes’ to him either because there seemed to be no time to do anything else. And that was the most inopportune moment she remembered Shankar Mahadevan and the passes.

Tearing out of her room she caught Mercy eating fruit. “You are eating fruit? Get me those tickets from Genelia, my dear! The fruit must wait!” And Mercy nodded vigorously through her fruit-filled mouth.

Back at her window, Janki thought, but a 24-hour day cannot be made into 40 hours nor can 3 p.m. be shifted to pre-lunch, just as Shankar Mahadevan cannot perform on a different day for Ma.

When she got  a chance to look up, Janki went to the washroom to escape. Taking the green and mauve sofa, she curled up and shut her eyes. The cleaning lady  who was shining the mirrors was alarmed at what the mirror showed her. Rushing to Janki she said, “Is madam ok?’

Janki smiled, “Thank you, Latha. Just need to hide for 10 minutes. Very tired.”

Meanwhile, the rest of Janki’s life was gathering girth. The foods business had gone through a leadership transition. Rahul Khurana, the HR head for foods, had called Janki last week just as her Auckland trip was in the throes of being cancelled. He wanted Janki to come up with a design for a one-and-a-half day workshop. He also said that the head of that business, CEO Joydeep Basu had it all planned out.

Basu wanted a transition programme for his 18 managers. Most were assuming new roles and some had their responsibilities widened. But their direct reports remained the same which meant those teams also needed to be helped with assuming newer responsibilities and managing their bosses.

HR also had a Transformation Director who had already e-mailed Janki saying, ‘ I need to talk to you and figure out what is possible.’
Janki found there was no space between events. In a distant way, you could say they were all business related or people related, but a pause would help wrap up events, put a label on them, assess if what was sought was being accomplished...

So, line managers had a vision and they were asking Janki to deliver it for their teams , even as other teams sent SOS messages — And oh, btw, several members of the leadership team are going off on a holiday and therefore if there is any pre-work that you need to do, you got to tell me fast. And  oh, btw, I will have to source an external facilitator because I can’t go anywhere, he will have to do all this....

Troubleshooting, handholding — all that happened. But more than that what happened was people development, which she completely enjoyed — imparting skills, reassuring them, showing them the way, pointing out the goal to them, encouraging people, giving them everything they needed to evolve. Some days when she dozed off in the car, in her half awake state, she felt happy to have got this role.

As for Ma who she doted on, Ma got her joys seeing her return from work early in order to beat the traffic so that she could get on to a conference call or a telepresence. Ma had her little measuring device and she slipped in portions of protein on to the table in the study, which she would then slide into vantage point using a long handled ladle, to avoid being spotted on the screen by the caller from Hong Kong or wherever!

Other times, it would be a bowl of ragi mousse as Ma tried to call porridge, to make it look attractive, but Janki called it Ragi mess, because of how it behaved. “Calcium calcium... good for those bones that you overwork...” Ma would whisper pushing the bowl closer to her computer, and Janki, armed for these intrusions with flash cards, pulled any one at random and waved it at her away from the screen. Usually her flash cards read, “Leave the room, Ma!”
To be continued...

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(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 27-07-2015)