Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Fading Ethical Divide

Two major events that kept the social media engaged in India, over the last two weeks, were from completely different domains but had a common streak somewhere deep down their behavioural origins. For the cricket lovers, it was the rude shock of a team’s collective involvement in deliberately altering the condition of the ball and thereby unethically reverse the swing. For others, it was the alleged complicity of a well-known and well-respected top-notch banker in some business transactions involving her husband’s company and that of a large client of her own bank, that could well have crossed the proverbial ‘Lakshman Rekha’ between business ethics and improbity.
In the corporate world, we are much familiar with the pressures of performance. With large scale commercialization of sports, the same pressure is felt amongst the sportsmen as well – be it an individual game or a team sport. With multi-million-dollar advertising and media industry lapping up sporting heroes at mind boggling remuneration, the motivation and urge to stay on top surges manifold. Winning becomes more important than playing the game.
With big money involved, the sporting world has also been corporatized to a large extent. There are equal number of managers, coaches, motivators and other support personnel as the number of players in a team. A lot many professionals are involved in sports management and that has emerged as a serious, lucrative career option. The high stakes bring in cut-throat competition and razor-sharp performance measures. The game hasn’t remained a game anymore. It is a business venture and hence it unconsciously propagates the philosophy of winning by all means – fair or unfair, right or wrong, by hook or crook, by shining the ball or by roughening its surface.
Like in sports, the leaders in corporate world too want to emerge as winners all the time. They typically have a more formal education in the management of winning. The purpose of their engagement at a corporate is solely for winning. Winning for the organization and thereby winning for themselves. With the ‘winner takes all’ policies of HR /Compensation managers, the young minds get attuned to focus only on winning. The process takes a back-seat.
All the leadership programs that the young managers attend during the course of their early career are all focussed on ‘winning’. And most of them also bring out ‘networking skills’ as one of the key skill to ‘winning’. All through my professional career, I have had an overdose of such tutelage on ‘networking skills’ in all forms of pedagogy. Nothing wrong with that – just that they fail to alert the young minds on the risks and the perils of crossing the ethical line. Using reference of the personal connects of one’s spouse to expand one’s own business line is one aspect. It may indeed be considered as a good, neat, harmless ethical networking. But when it involves one’s business connects – and particularly in an enterprise where public money is involved – it surely is not the best example of professional ethics.
In the corporate world, motivating, enticing and threatening individuals to stretch their goals to elasticity-defying levels is not a very uncommon scenario. And the high stakes attached with these goals – be it a business target or a sporting milestone – infuses the individuals with such an intoxicating urge to succeed that they tend to believe that achieving such a result is the only raison d’etre of their existence on this earth. The results become most important and any questions on the probity of its means become meaningless.
Somewhere along my mid-career crisis, I once had an outburst with my Manager on various seemingly ‘unethical’ practices. My otherwise upright Manager, in a resigned tone, just said – ‘they are smart people’. So, the smart corporate leader has learnt to keep the ethical line hazy. He has learnt to be ‘legally right’ and be ‘politically correct’, while staying on top of that hazy line so he can reach on both sides of the ethical divide, without seemingly crossing the line. Just that, sometimes, the sun shines brighter and people catch him on the wrong foot. And that is the only solace the upright, conscientious few can get – that some sunny morning, the rough side will get exposed on its own to check the illegitimate reverse swing.

VVIP Racism – from Politics to the Corporate World

I was watching a television show running stories on ‘VVIP racism’ – one case where a lawmaker was instructing a railway official to stop all trains and allow the one his boss was traveling on. The other story covered another lawmaker forcing his entry, with a bunch of his supporters, into a cricketing venue, albeit without a ticket. There is no dearth of such stories in the national polity. The sense of entitlement is quite deep rooted in this society.

When you think about a sensitive political scenario, where the leaders would not want any bad publicity, the cadre of lawmakers could still get away with such adventurism. But why can’t the boss show them the door? Because, in a democratic political canvas, the cadre lawmakers hold the key to success. The grass-root level support is critical as that forms the bottom of the political pyramid. And, therefore, the boss may not want to risk his support base by taking a harsh view, howsoever upright he might be. The unscrupulous, rogue lawmaker, most often, will get away with any such delinquency.

The corporate world too has its own version of such ‘VVIP racism’. An ex-colleague of mine summed it up well when he told my boss during his farewell drink – the Line Managers in your team work like a mafia. If and when they wish, they can inflict failure on you and if and only if they wish, you succeed.  Those were the golden words that my boss reminisced on multiple occasions, all through her tenure.

Sometimes we wonder, as to why a certain loudmouth, or a certain lawmaker with dubious records is given a long enough rope to tarnish and destroy the positive image of an authority. To an extent that such a tolerance often alienates many a straight thinking follower. Unfortunately, in the business of politics, the strength of mass appeal, enjoyed by an individual, dwarfs any other shortcomings accompanying his association. And unfortunately, such a mass followership often admires the power wielded on a railway employee or on the gatekeeper of a stadium.

In the corporate setup as described above, the boss is overly dependent on a few high performing Managers. The Managers are well aware of this and hence they set their own rules of governance.  This assertion of one’s own viewpoint in contravention of the boss’s operational plan, starting on the sideline activities and then veering into the mainline events, establishes the egoistical independence of such Managers. The boss’s dependence on the Manager, for the mainline, forces him to ignore the fringes. But when, where and how the sidelines merge with the mainline of governance is completely lost on the boss. And from then on, the governance runs on crutches.

Be it politics or the corporate world, if the leader does not identify and check the subtle recalcitrance in time, it leads up to a sense of entitlement and to the VVIP racism. Imagine a scenario where a certain top police official shows the audacity of behaving with another top bureaucrat colleague in a manner that would have put a common man behind the bars. And yet, this policeman, who was credited with efficient tackling of terrorism, was not only allowed to get away with his acts of eroticism, he was also awarded the highest civilian honors.

This hero-worshipping country needs to learn to be more professional in handling individuals. When we place an individual on a high pedestal, be it polity or the corporate world, we must also not hesitate to put a check on any unacceptable behavior. Whatever be the achievements of an individual, the respect for rulebooks and the basics of behavioral decency should not be allowed to be compromised. The behavioral span of an individual is not a zero-sum game.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Record Not Worth Celebrating

As I turned back to understand the reason for some commotion at the airport, I found a few flyers confronting the two ground duty staff, manning the boarding gate.  The display screen at the gate continued to show the same ETD for a Mumbai – Bangalore flight, though it was well past that time and there were no signs of the incoming aircraft yet.   I too was supposed to take the same flight and could see many flyers getting impatient as it was already 2 hours past the scheduled boarding time. And that meant the flight would reach Bangalore well past midnight.

While the phenomenon of delayed flights was nothing new, it was the lack of correct information that caused more anxiety to the flyers. I have been witness to the chaos at Mumbai airport, on those heavy rainy days of September, when not only the flights were abnormally delayed but were also cancelled. On those occasions, despite all the inconvenience, the flyers never took their ire on the ground staff. But here was a situation where they did not see any weather related constraints – neither in Mumbai nor in Udaipur, where the flight was supposed to have originated from.

It was indeed sheer apathy on part of the airline. On their part, they said that the aircraft had reached Mumbai and was hovering around the city for almost one hour, waiting for clearance to land. And then something stuck me. I had read a newspaper report a couple of days ago that the Mumbai airport had set a new record of air traffic – managing 980 flights in a span of 24 hours. Improving efficiency is good but not at the risk of paying a heavy price. This is not a typical corporate world where if you don’t meet your stretch goal, it just costs you a certain variable pay component or at the most an elevation. Here the precious lives are at risk and hence these records are required to be seen from a different perspective. Passenger safety is the key and there cannot be a trade-off on that.

Coming back to the incident, I have faced a situation when I boarded the flight but the pushback happened after 2 hours. The pilot had informed well in advance that we were in the queue behind other 37 aircrafts. There was a very heavy fog earlier in the morning and the airport was shut down for about 2 hours. The cascading delay, therefore, was explainable and the flyers could appreciate the situation. In the current scenario, however, there were no explicable reasons. The weather was perfect across the country all through the day. And hence the backlash.

The challenge of celebrating record breaking numbers is that they become the new baseline. The air traffic control is then expected to handle those numbers in the normal circumstances. The new schedules are drawn without considering breathing spaces. The crunched schedules are expected to work with precision – barring the weather induced disruptions as exceptions.

The job of an air traffic controller is a high pressure job. My worry is that when I fly next time, I am not sure if my aircraft is guided by an overworked controller. Or when my flight gets delayed next time, I am not sure if it is a genuine delay or a mess up of the controllers’ duty roster that had not considered a lower than full attendance. Or, if my pilot has just been asked to do a short merry-go-round the city just because an overworked controller had to take an urgent, long-suppressed bio-break.  

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crowd-Source Your Safety

On a flight from Mumbai to Bangalore last evening, I was flipping through a local newspaper that covered the various happy and sad moments of the year just gone by.  My eyes were stuck at the horrific pictures of two of the most bizarre accidents of the recent months that were caused due to sheer apathy on part of the authorities.  One was the Elphinstone railway bridge stampede that took away 23 innocent lives and the other one was the very recent 1Above pub fire that killed 14 innocent merry makers.

And these are not the only isolated incidents where we came across complete apathy on part of the authorities. Year after year, we have seen similar accidents involving hospitals, places of worship, festival gatherings etc. Governments will come and go; Ministers will inspect the sites only after an accident; a few upright bureaucrats might bring in cheer here and there but the situation will not improve drastically. It needs mobilization of public opinion and public consciousness. It is like the ‘Swachchha Bharat’ campaign which banks upon the common man to participate and make it a success.

Life is precious and a negligence of even a fraction of a second can take away a kicking and bubbling life as we saw in the case of that birthday girl in the 1Above fire accident. She just blew her birthday candles to the cheer of her friends and just a few moments later death blew her away – for none of her fault.

While places of public utility and services will still need the authorities to wake up from their slumber, with the high reach and impact of the social media, we can influence the opinion makers and the lawmakers to get into action.  However, on the other commercial establishments like Restaurants, Malls, theatres etc. who depend heavily on our patronage, we have the collective ability to twist their arms and make them follow best practices in order to provide safe and secure spaces.

And that is where crowd-sourcing will help us. Since most of these establishments are either owned by politicians or people with political patronage, it is not easy for a common man to take them head-on. The backlash would be too deadly for an individual to withstand. However, we can collectively air our negative opinions on these matters and avoid patronizing such places. The best way to counter these unscrupulous elements would be to hit them where it hurts most – their business investments.
Can the popular portals like Zomato and others introduce a Safety Rating other than the usual quality related rating that gives a collective opinion to a prospect. And the 5-Star Safety Rating would depend on whether the place has firefighting equipments? Whether the Fire exits are marked clearly? Whether they have multiple exit points? Whether the entry /exit staircase /gallery has enough space to provide safe passage to the entire capacity?

Someday, people will realize that it is safer to go to an eatery with 5-star rating on Safety-meter and 4-star on taste of the food than the other way round. Someday, the greedy, callous owners of such joints will start focussing on these important aspects as well. Someday, they will value our lives more than their profit margins. And someday, we will realize our own worth and will learn to place our safety and security above all other considerations. Let us start the New Year with that resolve. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Can Aadhar bring social injustice debate to a logical end

Some 25 years back, when I joined a Bank as a probationary officer, I happened to chance upon another youngster who hailed from the same city that I came from. Over a period, I got to know more about him as we moved together. But that is not the story.

During the training period, as we got more details on all the participants, I noticed from the list that this person belonged to a social class that allowed him to get this job under ‘reserved’ category (Given the sensitivity attached to an individual’s privacy today, this was an unpardonable blunder to have published these details but then it was a different age). His father was a bureaucrat from the Indian Economic Service – and ostensibly came through a reservation. So, compared to mine, this guy had a more comfortable childhood. He had a better schooling and moved in a society that was much more elite than that of mine.

Today, when I watch my daughter striving hard to get a seat into the premier institutes and then fretting about someone, who perhaps might walk away with a seat with much more ease, due to a guaranteed reservation, I am unable to reconcile to this state of continuous social injustice at the hands of those who continue to garner priority treatment at the expense of the ones it is meant for.
At some corner of the country, a progeny of my said friend might walk away with a ‘reserved’ priority seat yet again. Generation after generation, the three generations will continue to deprive a more deserving candidate his dues. My friend’s father was better placed in the Government as compared to my father – albeit after availing a reservation. My friend had an equal position as that of mine – yet again riding on a reservation. And now, his child will compete with my daughter with a pole position, riding on the ‘reservation’ card.

At another remote corner of the country, another person from the same social class as that of my friend, would be struggling to get a lowest, entry level job with the Government because his grand-father was uneducated, his father had no opportunities to complete his schooling and just got some Government alms to meet his ends. And now this third generation is still struggling to get a decent secure job that will put him and his family on par with others.

With Aadhar in place, can we also create a hierarchy of all Aadhar holders as stage-one.  Then we record the fact of these people having availed reservation in their family tree. Reservation once availed for a particular category of job, or higher studies, should then cease to be available for their next generation. And to be fair to them, if a person avails reservation for a Class 3 job with the Government, his progeny will still be eligible for reservation for all the higher levels viz Class 2 and Class 1 etc.

This is not a solution that will give short term results. This is a long term plan which will have a gestation period of 50 to 100 years. But that, for sure, will end up with much more even distribution of reservation for the most deserving amongst the social class that it is aimed at. After 100 years, we might live in a society that has no need for a reservation. After 100 years, we might end up creating a society where everyone gets equal opportunities.

I would be wrong if I do not acknowledge some of the honest citizens who have not taken undue advantage of their social position.  I remember a class-mate of mine, hailing from the same city, had relinquished his ‘reservation’ and got his medical seat, albeit with a struggle of two years, but purely on individual merit. His father himself was a doctor and I salute them for taking that bold step and sticking to that even after missing a seat in the first 2 attempts.

With the kind of spark that we have seen with some of the most revolutionary decisions that this Government has taken, I am sure it can only be this Government which can take such a bold decision. If it cannot be implemented by this Government, I am afraid no other Government will dare do this. And as this Government gave a call to all the financially privileged citizens to give up their subsidies voluntarily and got an overwhelming response, can the same be applied on this count as well, with a call to ‘give-up’ reservations voluntarily. Can this start with all the bureaucrats volunteering to give up reservations for their progeny – as they have already achieved the highest Government job with or without reservation.

And that will be the biggest contribution of Aadhar to our society – in spreading the benefits of reservation evenly across the social strata and ultimately reaching a point where no one will need reservation. The social injustice debate will then meet its much awaited logical end.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Can we really be minimalist?

Browsing through an airline house magazine, I happened to read a short interview of the spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev.  He was talking about people’s greed to have more, acquire more and consume more. He referred to the depleting natural resources and the urge to use-up all of it much sooner that what is needed.  He also referred to a beautiful quote of Mahatma Gandhi - The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.

A further reading of the interview made me a little uncomfortable. It spoke about technology aiding the manufacturing industry increase production manifold. Perhaps, much more than what is needed. It made me think about the typical business rat-race. The corporate brouhaha over the perennially upward moving revenue guidance. Only the ones who get stimulated by the very smell of this melee are the ones who survive and swing upwards along with the revenue graphs. The rest end up as burnouts.

Is it the fear of survival of the fittest? Is it the fear of a big fish eating the smaller ones and hence the pressure to continuously grow bigger? Or is it simply a poorly learnt lesson on ‘stretch goals’ taught in some high profile management school? What we don’t want to understand is that any material has a limit to its elasticity. Beyond that it becomes plastic. And plastic is typically artificial, false and superficial.

With corporate performance being measured at quarterly intervals, the executives are forced to demonstrate that much more agility, in terms of continuously pushing their goals to higher levels in shorter intervals. With that kind of appraisal, the focus too shifts on short term results rather than concentrating on a long term strategy. And they end up scraping through the bottom as if there was no tomorrow.

Long back, I was watching a TV interview of the legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan. The anchor referred to his flourishing career even beyond the age of 70 and asked him as to how long would he continue to work and earn.  To that Bachchan responded by saying – ‘I want to earn enough for my next generation to live a comfortable life. But unfortunately nobody knows how much is ‘enough’. So, I will continue to work as long as I can.’ I respect Bachchan a lot – both as an actor and as an individual who has been through many ups and downs in his life and still has maintained his dignity and has continued to earn respect from people at large. But that statement coming from a person who is supposed to be earning Rupees 1.5 crore for a day’s appearance on a TV show, is an indication of the uncertainties and insecurities of our society and therefore, how and why we get swayed towards acquiring more and more fearing for the rainy day.

So, if the large corporates do not believe and respect a minimalistic philosophy, the celebrities do not have the belief in creating a conservative eco-system then how do we expect a common man not to acquire more than what is required. Be it wealth, hard currency, consumables or even a few buckets of extra water. The minimalistic fervour in the society stays to the minimal.That it is not zero is the only silver lining. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hanging up..... what???

After working for about 30 years, I was seriously contemplating to call it a day. Neither was I comfortable with the changing corporate environment nor was my organization showing any particular admiration for my skills and experience.

I was thinking as to what would be the right timing, how I will keep myself busy once I quit and how will I present this decision to my family and friends.

I very distinctly remember and cherish those childhood memories of the momentous event of Mohammad Ali’s retirement. The King hangs up his gloves – screamed the newspaper headings. Or for that matter, when the football legend Pele announced his retirement, it was his boots that were supposed to have been hung.

Having worked in the IT industry for the last 18 years, I failed to figure out as to what will I finally be ‘hanging’. A keyboard or mouse didn’t make much sense as there was no symbolism associated with these – unlike the boots and the gloves.

As I was recollecting all my childhood dreams of a career, I remembered my first impression and fascination for the armed forces.  If I had joined the army, I would have proclaimed hanging up my uniform. The other fascination that I had was for cartooning. In that case, I would have announced hanging up of my pen or my brush. Another dream profession for me was that of a Doctor. It is another matter that the doctors never retire, but for the sake of records, I would have at least hung up my stethoscope.

I began my pursuit by jotting down the various roles played by me in the last 20 years. I did a bit of database administration, some software programming, some product SME and a lot of program management, people management and delivery management. All this while, I neither used any particular prop nor wore a specific attire – not even a symbolic one.

Finally, I could zero-in on one particular aid that I used all these 20 years doing grey and white collared jobs. The one key tool that I used while writing my code; designing a solution; shaping a product; interacting with my teams and my clients was perhaps my brain. And therefore, will it be appropriate if I announce to my friends that I would be hanging up my brains? But post that, my close friends and family will surely be in trouble – managing a brain-less creature around for rest of his life.