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Case Study: Sentence First... Verdict Afterwards

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Indira Varshney stood leaning on Prahlad Uppal's doorway with the most horrified expression on her face. Further away from them all stood Ambi Kesavan, Uppal's contemporary in HR.

The moment was explosive. This is what had happened. Indira had been away in the US to attend her kid sister's hasty wedding. It was a sudden decision she had had to make to lend the wedding a semblance of order. Only Ajit Saigal, her boss and MD of Delaware, knew that she had had a family emergency to attend to. As a result Indira had not been tuned in to office goings-on save the unusual email she received from Uppal saying that she was being made the head of Sales effective 1st January 2012, that Uday was moving into another function – all in keeping with international restructuring.

Indira, who was caught in the arbitration between her sister and mother and getting the family to ‘sanction' the wedding, had not focused too deeply on the words in the mail.  But two days ago  when she was idling at La Guardia airport, she had seen Uday Basu's mail where he had written about how he was being compelled to resign and that if he did not accept the management's proposed compensation package they would go ahead anyway and announce that he was being replaced by Indira Varshney and that he would be reporting to her!

Indira felt her stomach turn. What in heaven's name was all this?

It was around 6.30 pm in India to her 8 am in New York. If she did not call now, then it would be more than 30 hours before she would get to speak to Basu. Indira called Uday from New York airport. "Basu? Can we talk? What is going on? I can't believe all this! I was told you were being moved into another function...!" They talked and Uday said, "They wanted me to leave, all along Indira. All this started in

November, during the last quarter appraisal... well, I was naive and believed that Ajit wanted the sales leadership replaced because he wanted to place me somewhere else. We will talk..., but I needed to share all this so that you know.

"Sorry? ...oh no! a lot has happened in the last 8-9 days. And now even my exit compensation is being strangulated and HR has told me that if I do not accept what they are offering, they will go ahead and announce your installation and add that I will be reporting to you!"

Indira was dumbfounded. How could things change in just 10 days? Suddenly La Guardia airport seemed lonely and alien. "How can they do this Basu!" she yelled. "I am so sorry... I knew you were being moved but there was some talk of Nigeria and... of course! Didn't Prahlad even mention it? Oh heck... how I wish I had opened your mail the same day as it came. We were very stressed out, Ankita went and did some dreadful things, the stupid girl. And I had to run to the US to restore peace and sanity. How I wish I had seen it the same day!"

Uday: Oh, ok... yes, I knew you were in the US so I did not call. I only wanted you to be in the know as Ambi said it was relevant to do so. I am shaken Indira. Nobody in Delaware ever behaved like this. At first I negotiated like anyone would. Then three days ago I realised that it was very messy, very unclean, when they placed the ultimatum...

Indira: Ultimatum? This is severe! What are we working for? I hate this!

Uday:  Not much choice anymore Indira.... they went ahead and made the announcement  last week. Likely, soon after you left.

Indira was shell-shocked. Uday was a director, no less. He had been her boss some years ago. How could the company behave like this? "Let's meet Wednesday for breakfast? Yeah, my flight gets in at 1.30 am but that's ok, let's meet at 8 am." And here she was now, standing at Uppal's doorway, looking at her colleagues, colleagues she wished to trust and rely on. "Prahlad, I will not accept the new position if it is coming on the back of such unpleasantness...  and lies... how can I know that you can be trusted?" she said.

Prahlad Uppal: This is the system, Indira! The game plan has changed in the last few years, and no, Ajit did not change it, the environment did.

Indira: Oh, please! Somebody subscribed to the change to give it life! Anyway, I am not accepting this promotion, if you choose to call it that. Not because Basu is a friend. But because that is not the kind of organisation I joined. This cut-throatedness is not Indian.

Uppal: The culture belongs to the company and I don't think there is a choice. It's the way the organisation has chosen to conduct its affairs!

Ambi: You surprise me Prahlad. Here are two of us who believe otherwise, and you are a nice one to talk culture! (To Indira) You watch out; this entire drama is going to make you look like the villain of the piece.

Indira was alarmed. Now the coins fell. She stood there covering her face with one hand and shaking her head.  Then to Uppal: "It's off. Officially it's off. Take this as my verbal resignation. I am not going to be party to all this."
Uppal: This is what I tell Ajit, you women are too emotional!

Indira to Ambi: I might say something improper to him and that will not be nice. So let me leave... you can convey this to Ajit.

Meanwhile an unhappy silence envelops Delaware. Senior management knew Uday had not accepted the terms yet his departure was announced. People were dazed. Something just did not make sense. They knew Indira, they knew Uday. They knew both were clean human beings with a clean approach to work. Indira was younger and had been at Delaware 11 years to Uday Basu's 17. But she had been around longer than their MD Saigal. Yet Saigal was the MD —there was a certain augustness attached to that office and it was usually assumed that it went to people with dispositions far, far superior. Hence there was much confusion at Delaware.

Things turned ugly for Indira, exactly as Ambi had predicted. The first casualty was her secretary Maitry who had earlier been Uday's secretary. She stood before Indira sobbing pitifully and mouthing unintelligible platitudes about her ex-boss and this too: "I thought you would not let this happen..."

Indira stared after Maitry in surprise. But Uppal's secretary, Isha, was ready with her repartee: "Maybe they used Indira as a pawn to engineer Basu out?" Isha justified that with, "I know how HR works."

All in all, something like this had never happened at Delaware in the past. An element of fear and doubt seized employees.

The management board met to greet and felicitate Indira in her new job. Uppal did not share with the MD the showdown he had had with Indira, nor had Indira gone to meet the MD. Mercifully for her, he was travelling till the day of the felicitation. She was now going to talk to him in the presence of his team. No less.

There was the usual exaggerated bonhomie before the meeting as everyone groaned about work and everyone else groaned in return. One such was Kapil Chandok, head of finance, who said, "The next two quarters are going to be decisive for us. If things don't look up by June 2012, then we will be lining up at the cleaners... We can begin with costs, controlling flab was always a great way..."

Saigal: I agree, Kapil, but not for too long, for good times are here! For we will now welcome on board the magic woman, Indira! Now that she is taking over, our fortunes are going to zoom.

Poker-faced, Indira raised her hand to stop them, then said, "This is strange, you expect one person to make a difference to our profitability? Then what are others here for?"

Saigal: Oh Indira, you are being modest! With you holding out for Sales, I see a great revival of fortunes!
Indira: My argument holds Ajit. How can one person make a difference? Or even two persons? I do feel you are putting upon me a responsibility that is not entirely mine!

Chandok: In other words?

Indira: In other words, we should all carry responsibility for a corporate setback or failure.  To say that I have been appointed to restore Sales is to say that Uday Basu single-handedly led Delaware to failure. And to say Basu failed, is to say the rest of us sit with our hands tied.  Both statements are fallacious. Is it not? I now harken back to 2005, 6 and 7. Even 8. We were soaring! Our sales were off the graph! You were not here then, Ajit, but I recall we did not thump Basu on the back for the success. I recall we all sat and felt great that we were a terrific team. After which we drank ourselves silly.

Which brings me to the raison d'être for my elevation. I sit at this table with 12 men and I am here to a make a difference... a difference to the otherwise all-men, no women ratio. I am aware of Delaware, especially Cathy Baker's accent on diversity. But diversity is not a decorative. It is a desirable but not an imperative. What is imperative is for everyone to be committed to goals. As for diversity we can show it in our attitudes to many things.

Ajit, I cannot stand in judgement on why you want Uday out. But I wish to say this much: to remove him so as to appoint me, so as to take the diversity quotient up, so as to appear progressive — I cannot be party to that."

The silence that followed was deafening. Saigal picked up the moment very efficiently and swiftly – "Well spoken Indira. Truly well spoken. But truth is Uday is going and the decision stands, the reasons are different from what you have understood." 

Indira: Coming from the MD of this organisation, I will place my trust in your words. I will see endorsement of that truth in the way Basu is treated hereafter.

Then turning to his people Ajit raised a toast and pointless merriment followed. Indira stood by, completely confused. She had never encountered anything like this before, so she did not know what signs to look for. The committee had met for no other reason, and since kebabs and cookies  took over, Indira also took away a sense that her protest had lived its moment and died.

Indira left the conference hall unnoticed.

That evening Maya called Uday and said, "Mr Ajit Saigal wishes to give you a farewell dinner. Oh no, not alone, silly, he has invited the entire board and other managers relevant to your tenure."

Uday: When?

Maya: On the very last day.

A brief silence later both of them burst out laughing. "Let me guess," said Uday, "It will be the most expensive restaurant?" Maya said, "Nevermind Uday...ok, it is! Are you accepting the invitation?"

Uday: Of course I am. I have forgiven him... besides, I want to see the other board members.

But it was obvious to Uday that Ajit suggested the dinner at the stage when everything was finished — papers signed, all announcements done, and the fractional transition period coming to an end. Going away was like that...

The atmosphere at the dinner was very disconcerting for most present. For those present were all senior managers, two top management secretaries, all area sales and territory sales heads and of course the management board. At one level Uday's peers felt very bad for him, but they were still working for Delaware and that made it imperative that they remain feelingless. Indira stood in a corner very angry with the turn of events, unable to say anything.

Then Saigal made a speech, where he began with a story of no serious consequence. It meandered and got lost somewhere. Presently, Saigal was thanking Uday for his contribution to the company — which had some shifting in their seats. (Later Brian asked,  "Did he mean those words?" And Uday replied, "One should not look for meaning. He is performing a role and he is doing it well. Are the words coming from his heart? How do we know where words come from? It's not that he is heartless. I am sure he is restless within. But he also knows he cannot and will not do it any differently. Because a lot of variables are at stake. But I know he is feeling bad about how he managed to get me out.")

Then others made speeches, people who had evolved and grown with Uday at Delaware. The flavour was different. Ambi said to Uppal, "How well everyone thinks of him, why are we asking him to go, I wonder." Uppal moved away to pick up a pinwheel sandwich. 

Others too were heading for the buffet. They would pick their plate and quietly drift from the ‘epicenter' of correct talk, gently taking Uday away to the margins where they would not be heard telling him, "All this is so bad, we did not expect this..."

Indira stepped in and took Uday away from the rest. "Basu, this is stupid and I am witnessing it all happen. I am really sorry. This spoils the mood for life! No, please allow me to speak my mind. You have been my boss, you have groomed me in different roles which is why I am here now, seen as relevant, good, competent... all that. But I am unable to enjoy this success with you!"

Uday: That is not so. What they have done is over. I am not grieving. I am enjoying your success and I really mean it.
Indira: Yes, I realise one must separate the persons from the organisation and I try and remind myself that it is the organisation I work for, not the people.

Others came up now one by one to Uday and this grieving group grew larger and larger. They stood there and told him how shocked they were and how they were disappointed by what they were witnessing. Many thanked him for all that he had done for their careers all these years and said they must remain in touch — which had a deathly finality... this began to bother Uday. Now he realised that this was in fact not just his last day at Delaware, but even his last hour. Uday's eyes misted, even if briefly.

He checked himself in time as Justin Purush, the recently hired brand manager, came up to him with a hesitant smile. "Hi...," he said, and put out a hand and shook Uday's. Then in a whisper, he said, "Forgive me if my question is rude. Some people think you are leaving because you have been offered country manager-ship at Etzo..." and as Uday laughed, Justin continued, "and some think you have been asked to go, which is my bigger concern Mr. Basu."

Uday: Hahaha.. and why is that?"

Justin: Sir, do forgive me. I have just joined a few months ago. I would be worried if Delaware can create erratic situations such as these. I mean, I am serious about my career...

Uday: You should not think like that. This is a large organisation and has very good people. You will learn more than you can even imagine!

The previous three days, Uday had met one key distributor each for lunch and another for dinner. These were great dinners laced with memories of all that they had achieved together. Uday had such an amazing time at all these meetings, it did not seem like he was leaving Delaware! Some of them asked him gently if  a strategy change was expected. Uday told them that the long-term strategy he had developed with his team had the board's approval and he did not see reason for it to change. They were not assured.

He now took in the entire evening and tried to imagine life without any of these people or the buzz. Suddenly the pain was gripping. What a serious part of his life was being wrenched away! Elsewhere Ambi stood near Saigal but was unable to kick up a conversation. Nor was he able to bring himself to walk away. But Saigal made that easy. He said, "I have heard rumblings that you are unhappy with Uday's exit."

Ambi: Mostly because I have been told he is going because his performance was bad. Ajit, never mind the 17 years; but do pay heed to the last six years. Sales have boomed. In fact we have never done so well ever! You have only just come in Ajit, three years ago. Four years until then, we soared outside the graph! Hence I wonder where your complaint comes from.

Unless you blame the recession on Uday?

Saigal was saved as Maya came towards them and Saigal left to get her a Coke.

Ambi to Maya: Bad timing Maya. You gave him a chance to get away.

Maya: Don't kid yourself that he would have answered your questions.

Ambi:  I am convinced Ajit needs to save face with the parent company and hence needed to be kicking someone real hard to show action. Hence Uday. But what Ajit misses is this: the ‘new' that he needs for the business cannot be used till the old is resolved. He made the mistake of thinking that Indira will be a willing replacement. She does not fit in with Ajit's ways...  Does not Ajit have a bigger problem?

Maya: Haha. This is like how I hastily cut open a new packet of coffee, that came from Bangalore (since it seemed to hold promise of new experience). And in order to empty the coffee jar to store the new, I began to overuse the old coffee! Yes, Ajit probably has a bigger problem now. A part of the new will not fit...

Classroom discussion
Should gender diversity be a mission or a vision? Or, both? Or... neither?


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 26-03-2012)