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Case Study: Slipping Down The Learning Curve

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Indira Karnik choked on her tea as she caught sight of Ojas' reflection in the mirror on the pillar outside. Was that him or was she imagining things? Now this is getting too much, she thought. He was back again! Why? Ojas Moitra was a junior consultant at HeadsUp, a people interface firm, specialising in key business services including training, recruitment and placement.

Red Dot Inc. had been customers of HeadsUp's recruitment division for many years, and recently had also signed up the training division to train its security guards and front office staff in etiquette and service. CEO Mahir Vikar had resorted to recruiting through HeadsUp at a time when his firm was two years old. Since both firms were located in Pune city, HeadsUp had become like an in-house facility.

The relationship that operated with HeadsUp was minimum: HeadsUp hosted ads for Red Dot (web and print) and collected the CVs from the candidates. That kept the relationship between them free of unnecessary human interface, save 2-3 times a year when HeadsUp sent its annual gift hamper on diwali or the renewal contract.

It is against the backdrop of such a relationship that Indira gagged on seeing Ojas's reflection. For this was the third time in two days and sixth time in nine days that she had seen him at Red Dot. Importantly, Indira, the HR head, was the point of contact for all dealings between Red Dot and HeadsUp and two days ago, when she had run into Ojas in the outer office, he had told her "I was just passing by, so thought I will check if there is anything I can do for you". When this repeated, Indira had first expressed pleasant surprise, then quiet gratitude, then irritation, and finally today it was doubt. Why was Ojas here so often?

Picking up the interoffice phone she called Amanda, her assistant manager: "Is the HeadsUp fellow here for something?" And Amanda's voice came back singing, "Oh sure, be with you in a sec!" Indira stared at her phone worried. A minute ago she thought she was seeing things; now she was also hearing things.

"He was standing at my desk, hence I could not talk!" said Amanda laughing, as she entered. "He has been coming in often, on some pretext or another, each excuse quite inane. But two days ago he asked me if I wanted to work elsewhere at twice the salary. And I said ‘no way'… and he said, ‘aren't you going to ask where?' and I said I didn't care. Today he tells me, ‘Meet me for coffee and when you hear the name of the company you will drop dead!'"

Indira's frown deepened. "Is he giving you the glad eye?" she asked. Amanda laughed, "Oh no, Indira, he is just trying to sell me a job, that's all. Now, I will be leaving at 3 pm, ok? Recall Thursdays are my half days… bye!" And she was gone. Amanda usually stayed with her thoughts; like today she was in deep thought about the short story she was writing for Women's Era. It was about a woman who discovered at 43 that she was dyslexic and not lazy as everyone in her family thought! Thursdays was when Amanda spent time researching. So, Ojas and all that did not occupy her mind.

But Indira thought this was serious. She would need to tell Mahir. Red Dot took pride in looking after all its employees very well, the women a bit more as Mahir was very particular.

Mahir was annoyed. "Tell the security guard JUST NOW, if that man comes again, he must be brought to me."

Mahir was perturbed. That somebody should walk into his office, because he could as a vendor of services, and then misuse it made him very angry. Later that day, Mahir tried calling HeadsUp several times to speak to its CEO Jatin Kale, but his phone was out of range. Mahir then called Uddhav Dasmesh, Red Dot's strategic advisor. Mahir referred to Uddhav as his Chanakya, except that Uddhav neither believed in sowing dissension to win wars nor in using enticement to delude the enemy.

As he himself told Mahir once, "You would be wrong if you try to make your client perceive you as you want to be perceived. What you need is to simply understand how the client perceives you. Then work from there — both in war and peace." And that is exactly what Mahir realised now. His vendor HeadsUp perceived him as either weak or not smart enough, or not worthy.  Red Dot was not a Goliath, but Red Dot was no novice David either. "Now what would you suggest as the best course of action, since Jatin is not available on phone? I was planning to write to him," said Mahir.

"Capital!" said Uddhav. "Exactly my idea too. Write to him and tell him this is not nice. He is a decent guy, he will understand." Since his call was not returned for two days, Mahir wrote to HeadsUp's Jatin: I have great respect for your vision and Red Dot has been your customer for the last eight years. But now I am not sure if I want to renew our relationship and here is why: (and Mahir explained) You and I are both businessmen, and I think like me you too have grown your business from scratch. But your people do not seem to value your effort in building the organisation. They clearly don't have any respect for you, and you need to know this.  As for me, I not only do not tolerate anyone harming my brand, I don't tolerate them harming my people. And yes, this is not nice.

On the other end, Jatin read this mail on his Blackberry just before he boarded his flight from Frankfurt to Chicago. Promptly he called his associate Vishesh Vaidya, and told him to call Mahir and resolve the mess and also make sure no ill feelings remained. He then wrote to Mahir, "I am sorry things came to this pass. But trust me, HeadsUp stands for much more. My colleague Vishesh Vaidya will get in touch with you."

Vishesh arrived later than appointed and after the initial pleasantries, said, "I understand there is a problem you have. Yes, Ojas was asking the lady if she would be interested in another job he had to offer. Nothing more. And nothing wrong with that, I suppose? It's the nature of our business, and we do look out for good people for all our clients".

Uddhav whose stony clipped tones were legendary, said, "I wonder, does it strike you that that is wrong? Does it strike you that it is causing deep damage to your brand?" Vishesh shrugged and said, "Not wrong!"

Uddhav: You know Vishesh, we do business based on some basic measures of morals, ethics, grace, etiquette and fair play. This may sound funny to you, but we allow that to guide us in how we treat our clients and more importantly, how our customers treat us. At first we thought Ojas is young, green behind the ears and flighty and HeadsUp will set the confused relationship right. But, now we are not so sure we want to renew our relationship with HeadsUp.

Vishesh: (shrugging) That is a call you have to take. It's for you to decide.

And he brought down both palms with a light but decisive thump on the arm rest of his sofa in a manner of signing off and looked from Uddhav to Mahir, both of whom were shocked. And as he stood up to leave and reached the door, Mahir said, "Say, have you spoken to Ojas about this before meeting us?" Vishesh turned around and said, "Yes I have, although briefly."
Mahir: And has Jatin spoken to Ojas?

Vishesh: Mr Kale? Oh no! Inter-personal issues are dealt with by me and my team.

When he had left the room, Indira who was among the others present, said, "I wonder how this ‘quality' did not show up all these eight years!" Uddhav who was steaming by now, said, "They were growing then, you see? Now they have grown very big. Mahir, I am actually going to send a ‘thank you' note to Jatin Kale for a priceless lesson we have learnt at no cost. If a consultant had to be called to teach our people this, then we would be out of pocket by Rs 5 lakh.

Mahir: Actually I am not amused Uddhav, I am hopping mad. Let this be the post script of your thank you note to Kale.

Uddhav: I am thinking Mahir, you set up Red Dot nine years ago with barely any seed capital. As an entrepreneur who worked your way up, your attitude (as would be Jatin's too) to sanctity of spaces and minds must be quite contrary to that of young new employees today, no? Yet 15 years ago, I recall my elder brother quit Hindustan Lever to join one of those family-managed groups because they were mopping up fine managers from good companies after the post-liberalisation attrition to the Reeboks, Pepsis and Cokes began. Despite his degrees from the IIT, IIM and 17 years in HLL, and despite his phenomenal name in the market, he did not treat the FMC like baap ka maal'. In fact, family entrepreneurs then were closed and guarded so that professionals they hired, felt stifled unable to exercise their creativity. In fact, it was said that FMCs were clannish, narrow minded, and unable to retain professional managers.

Cut to today, where we have ‘professional' entrepreneurs, who bring in own capital or venture capital, who are raring to invent and discover and build. And you are trusting and giving, and full of management hype because you believe India must grow. So much so that you even leave the family treasures lying on the coffee table and don't fear being looted! I wonder if that liberal and generous attitude is a mistake; I now see sense in why the FMCs keep such a strict guard on their business.

And today I see this man Jatin has sent, and I am wondering. Incidentally, my sister was classmates with Jatin at Ferguson College. She says he is decent, polite, and is not the dandy sort or flighty. He was the sort you knew would go on to do something good in life. She in fact said, ‘He is very sober, the kind who your kids could call uncle!' Now when I hear all this, and see the likes of Ojas and Vishesh, I can't make sense.

Indira: Jatin does not seem to be the problem in this transaction. It seems to me a case of careless hiring. But then all these men are MBAs. So, is the rush and haste resulting in class-3 type b-schools that skim the surface, ignore values and the relationship ends with collecting fees? Or do you end up hiring cheap?

Mahir: There are two kinds of companies, which are created everyday in India. The first one with a lot of values, truly wanting to create a great company, not worried about competition, very good at what they do and stick to what they are good at, long-term growth strategies strong, creating value instead of volume, agile, people-oriented. Red Dot belongs to that category.

The second one with the ‘IDEA' — develop a few strategic power points, hire some B-school graduates to deliver jargon-filled talk. These companies think they can grow 300 per cent in a year; obtain VC funding because their spouse have contacts in the investment circle; they can't see beyond the first few years; don't have a desire to stand on their own feet; page 3 obsessed, cannot give up their lifestyle; don't want to learn from failures, people are not valued, money is!

"I think the younger generation is in a big hurry. They think they can make a Silicon Valley in no time. Dig a little deep and they collapse, they want quick name and fame. They believe that their social networking and playing some dumb games is what constitutes smartness. Give them a broken kettle, they can't fix it. But yes, they can buy you a new one with their money.

"Today's colleges and schools rarely teach failure management. In India, everyone teaches only about success and how to become successful. When they fall they are not taught the art of getting up. Instead, they learn how to file an insurance claim or sue somebody. Indira is so right… many of the b-schools are not focusing on building and grooming good managers; just as schools caught in the CBSE chase, these b-schools come with an agenda to score…

Kaushik Varman (Operations Head): You know, you are all talking about business ethics and all that. Tell me how come Vishesh says Jatin did not speak to Ojas-The Errant?

Mahir: I would be surprised if he has not; he will, he will. But meanwhile, the matter has been shabbily treated. This is not how business is conducted. This is the way of the Fathers of Recession: roger the business then give employees a fat bonus and a paid weekend at a spa!

This is in fact the malaise of the 2000s, the ‘I want to look good' syndrome, not ‘I want to be good'. So growing markets, increasing top line, being well known… all this is the packaging effect. Instead of going within and unravelling our potential and examining how much we can stretch it, we are going outward and doing a stupid circus. What we have within, we don't know or don't realise.

Illustration by Anthony LawrenceI am amazed, Uddhav. I come from a small town — Barshi — and even today I feel my townsfolk are way ahead of the city tribe. Believe me. We innovate! We create! We dig deep! We don't skim the surface! If we go with this profit growth madness, then there is going to be NO innovation from urban areas. I think rural India, especially in tier-3 cities and villages are very innovative in their approach to practical problems. For a simple cough, the urban youth wants antibiotics. Arre! Take honey with warm water and heal yourself organically! That is called, ‘looking within' organic solutions!

Uddhav: (Laughing) Yes… that too! There are many causes for all that we witness. In the case at hand, I personally think that Ojas, went beyond his brief. His task is to help the customer grow. And in the growth of the customer is the growth of his own company, and then his growth as an individual. He tried to jump straight to his own growth, without thinking of either his company or that of his customer. Second, Ojas used tactics and behaviour that are not considered normal. HeadsUp (and vendors in general), needs to train its team to be sensitive to customer feelings and always be alert to their emotions. 

I see the above as gaps in education, training, company guidelines, values and ethics and (consequent) personal evolution. What kind of a company are we dealing with? I won't look at the vendor representative and examine his behaviour. He is the symptom. The disease is in the company.

Kaushik: Sorry, I disagree. A company can have a broad philosophy that should percolate to its people. By and large, companies are watchful and if they notice a bad egg, they weed him out quick. But to say that Ojas's conduct is symptomatic of the company's disease is one thing. But to say ‘the disease is the company' is alarming! But yet I wonder, does HeadsUp do a regular ethics audit with its customers, a kind of 360 on its account managers? If it did it would have spotted the fellow very early.

Uddhav: Agree with you: you can't tar a company with the same brush you use for an errant individual or department or incident or product within the company. But examine the following which there are exceptions to this rule:

HeadsUp did not have a regular accounts manager for Red Dot; that's the fundamental first stop for problem solving, troubleshooting and escalating issues.

When Red Dot did bring it up, the person who turned up for the discussion was Big Brother of Ojas who was the problem. If you recall, Vishesh's words were, "inter-personal issues are dealt with by me and my team". Straight away you know this matter won't find place in Jatin's agenda. Vishesh's attitude was, "We don't care, do what you want." I feel it's a contagious disease that came down from Vishesh to Ojas. And deduce that Vishesh himself has imbibed this attitude from his environment!

Kaushik: I don't know the guy, but am trying to imagine his position in a fair manner. I feel, companies like HeadsUp, who just got it right at the right time and place, will run to keep their leadership position.

Mahir: You know greatness comes with responsibility! People such as Richard Branson, take customer feedback seriously. An Indian wrote to Branson about a bad experience on Virgin. Branson went and published it in the press! I think if you are taking the responsibility to run a company, then you must first come equipped with integrity and values.
I have learnt that we must accept our mistake without fear (even if it means losing business), implement the learnings from your roots, and lastly that there is enough business for everyone. no need to be so desperate to win so that I compromise with what I hold dear! Somehow, everything today is edged with glamour so that people think running a business is also a reality show!

A week later Indira met Uddhav on some workshop and told him, "Mahir plans to renew his contract with HeadsUp with a prayer in his head." Uddhav laughed. "Good, now we must get Mahir some Turkish worry beads... and he must place it on the table when he talks to clients, like Don Corleone would place his gun on the table! Yet I must talk to Mahir".

"I understand you have decided to renew your HeadsUp contract anyway?" Uddhav asked Mahir as he entered his room later. Mahir did a dancing movement with his head and said, "I thought I shouldn't be emotional. then again I want to know what people do after they have messed up! It is a new learning for me! Have you watched Narnia? The kids enter the wardrobe knowing it was leading to a weird place... only if I stay on will I learn more about people, relationships, business, competition, greed…"

Classroom/syndicate discussion
Do values transfer just because they are recorded in the corporate credo?

casestudymeera at gmail dot com