02 October, 2009

Hopscotch

It was the phone call that started it all. He was on his way to Harvard on a company sponsored Executive Management Program; a condensed rigorous schedule chalked out only for the very best senior executives of an organization being groomed for the top position. As he deplaned at JFK International airport, New York, the cell phone buzzed. It was Murali Kanetkar his personal assistant. The words still echoed in his ear even today “The Board has selected TSR “.

He had seen it coming for a while now but never imagined that it would be announced in his absence. It seemed as if they wanted him out of the country for an extended period when they did this. He went through the entire Business Management Program in a numb state of mind. It was a KO punch that would have downed any normal person in his position but he was made of sterner stuff. Yet it hurt and badly at that. For twenty five years he had given himself to the company growing its business, creating & grooming great teams and it had eluded him now; the top job. Playing the system had been sheer guts ball; his rise was meteoric in parts, steady in the others with a few setbacks too, quite normal to an executive’s career graph. Hit hard, he had decided then to roll with the punch and go with the flow. But things had only gone from bad to worse after that call. Individually he seemed secure but his position and the power with it had lost its sheen. It had coincided with the market downturn and opportunities outside petered out too. He had never once considered that as an option till then. But now with the situation coming to a head, completely against his grain, he had consciously broached out. It was eerie the manner in which every single moment of the last two years flashed across his mind in clear & distinct frames like an old choppy black and white film.

The light had turned red as his chauffeur halted the car. Aditya Buch, Sr. Executive Vice President of Energy Corp Limited just put his head back on the seat rest and stared out of the window, eyes unfocussed. He couldn’t put his finger on exactly what had triggered this memory.Today he had decided to wind up early at work and at 2.00pm started for home. The downturn affecting the company’s business and his vertical in particular was neither the first nor the severest one in his career & he was sure that ‘this too would pass’.

ECL was his first & only job from the time he was handpicked picked off the campus of IIT Bombay. He had opted to be in the sales function. Through sheer determination and hard work he had quickly scaled up the ranks. ECL was an off shoot of Cyrmed which had been a closely held company founded by a Parsee gentleman Kaizad Cyrusi. Cyrmed dealt with fabricated furniture used in medical facilities. The son in law of the founder- Farhan Engineer was instrumental in steering Cyrmed towards technology. Subsequently ECL was carved out as a separate company. ECL concentrated on being an equipment and solution provider to other Industries in the field of Energy. Ironically Engineer the first chairman was not an engineer by qualification at all but an economics graduate. But what he lacked for in technical knowledge he made it up with his quick-silver open minded approach, clear vision, superb business acumen and a unique ability to attract the best talent in the industry. He assembled together the finest young brains in technology and made them a part of his vision. It was an exciting place to work with precisely because of this very talent pool. Aditya had joined the company when its strength was some 350 people and a turnover of Rs.100 million.His only goal had been the top position for which he had chalked out a path and systematically gone about it; executing and achieving those periodic milestones in the climb upwards. The company too had grown in the interim period. ECL in the present day was a multi-divisional company with people strength of 2900 & a turnover of Rs. 19 billion. The vertical under Aditya alone had a top line of Rs.12 billion and 1500 people.

Where had the years gone by ? Why did he feel a faint sense of unease and distress today?

He sighed deeply and as his thoughts lost the intense concentration the world outside the car window swam back into focus. He found himself in the suburb of Bhuleshwar. He wondered why the chauffeur, Joseph, had chosen this path today. It didn’t bother him much though as Joseph knew they were going home. Home was Bandra, further north from Colaba where the office was located. It was not his style to interfere once he had spelt out his expectation. His team loved him precisely for this trait, never once would he vacillate over a decision and once conveyed would give the team total freedom of execution. Nearer the timeline would come a brief review check and unless asked for he would hold his opinion. His feedback was always fair, firm and encouraging even if things may not have been exactly in line with what he had earlier spelt. He allowed people to make their own mistakes and learn from them. He was a superlative man motivator & consistently got more delivered because of this ability; coupled with the fact that he took his people along with him as he rose had created a fair amount of bankable goodwill. Now if one has to achieve speedy progress then some toes are bound to be stepped upon, some games would be played. He had done them all. As he looked out he zoned in on the trigger of these thoughts.

In an open compound adjoining the spot where the car stood, were four children playing, three girls and a boy all between ten & twelve years of age. It was hopscotch. He smiled widely to himself and looked on. Hopscotch is a simple game yet absorbing in its execution. All one needs to play it are a piece of chalk and a small flat rock or tile. One draws the course of 9 squares in a cross formation, tosses the slate in one of the squares and hops into the squares. The square with the tile is avoided while the foot has to be clearly inside the square. When the foot falls on a line then the player is out and has to concede her/his turn to another player. The beginner is allowed to look below and jump but as one progresses in the skill she/he should not. There lay the skill and the precision of the hop. Each being a commitment to a path forward till the top of the course is reached. Then one hops around comes to the square holding the tile, bends while on one leg, picks it up and completes the return, hopping all the time.

He had played it as a boy in Junagadh district, Gujarat where he hailed from. They were Nagar Brahmins’ by caste and a very close knit family. He being the apple of his grandmother’s eye was encouraged the most. When he won at Hopscotch against his sisters, he would get a paisa coin from her as a reward. He was allowed to spend it on himself though he never did. Even later as his education and career took him away from Junagadh to Bombay, this practice never varied or stopped. She rewarded and celebrated each one of his successes. He too looked forward to visiting her year on year just to see the glow in her wrinkled cheeks and shiny eyes as she dipped her hand below the pillow and fished out her velvet pouch. The joy and anticipation had remained just the same between them. The paisa had grown to four annas over time and he treasured them as much as his promotions, increments or bonuses which would have boggled the mind of the lady had she known the values. He clutched each coin fiercely like a hard won medal and kept them in a walnut engraved box at home. They came from a person who encouraged him and believed in him much before anyone even knew of his existence let alone potential. She had passed away a decade back and the playing kids rekindled that memory. He missed her for her simple homilies, the sage advice and her innate native wisdom. She had been his first & original mentor. She had played a role in his understanding of people &motivation for performance.

All things being constant the more one plays a game the expertise goes up till there comes a time when one can even play blindfolded. He knew now that he had never actually stopped playing; only now which each step ahead the squares had progressively become smaller and one day it would be his foot on the line. It had fallen two years back. Outside the girls yelled with joy as the boy faulted the line. Disappointed the boy stepped back & awaited his turn to play again.

The Engineer family had encouraged Aditya’s progress in his early days and he had grown close to them. He was on a song then and his rise was spectacular. He rose to command the outpost in the Western region with a record performance at a very young age. His efforts going forward were now keenly watched by his rivals. They waited for him with an obstacle at every turn. Most he had nimbly jumped over, some he had anticipated and diffused but off late he had stumbled a few times. The next business he headed was a startup, a new thrust area for the group. Things had not worked out for the business, as well as he had envisaged, both in the receptiveness of the market or the team he had to settle for. Limited capital constrained him to look within the group for a team. Those he chose were senior experienced hands. Startups as a thumb rule though work best with young people. Youth is energy and this energy when channelized by one head on top works wonders. This precedent was overlooked by him. Startups also require a fair seeding time. While the business idea had merit and they did manage a few business orders they had faltered. He had begun operations in a comfort zone of his relationships; both with the choice of clients and his choice of the team. This became his undoing and he had vowed not to adopt the same kind of approach ever ahead. He wound up this division and then moved back to the group.

The CEO, Rajiv Deshpande was an old school, old economy veteran and an autocrat in his style of operations. He had replaced Aditya’s mentor who had to leave when the economy turned & the groups fortunes fluctuated. The bad weather CEO, RD tightened the reins, trimmed the costs, cut off fresh financing to all new ventures and denied extended timelines to new seeded ventures. One of the casualties had been Aditya’s new venture. But then as a loyal, skilled & market hardened resource, he was just too valuable to let go. He was weaned back and as compensation was given his old division to head. RD’s actions streamlined the company into fewer verticals and restored profitability. He had recalled another of his trusted people T S R Balakrishnan from a company in the Middle East back into ECL to head its parallel division that concentrated on Environment. TSR was impeded by no historical performance metric for his division and the growth he achieved was phenomenal. This starkly contrasted with the performance of Aditya’s old economy division that was hit by the downturn. RD favored TSR to head the company after him and made no secret of it to the board. The family members who favored Aditya were left mute when performance in the recent past was brought on to the table.

Every successive day became a struggle. His peers & board who had supported his candidature receded into their shells. Most straddled a fence and preferred to keep mum.

Outside the traffic had not yielded even one bit, the light was still red and Joseph was drumming his fingers on the steering. In the rearview he could see his boss calmly watching the kids play their game. Joseph was a Tamilian and he too knew the game if only by its Tamil name - Paandi. The world around them was still, only the kids seemed to be perpetually in motion.

As the girls played Aditya could see that two of them deliberately cheated, and the boy, despite noticing this was quiet about it. He felt a queer empathy with the boy. The girls had denied him his rightful turn for a couple of rounds yet the boys expression didn’t change.

The thoughts flew back to the manner in which TSR after having taken charge had systematically scuttled his responsibilities and eroded the power centers. Aditya was still perceived as a threat to his chair. The attacks were oblique and never direct and it was a confrontation waiting to happen. Aditya had read Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and was a follower. Without a fall back option he was not going to engage TSR. For this very reason he had activated his contacts outside. For over a couple of months now there had been an active discussion with a multinational giant. They were on the lookout for a person of his talents. They too had expressed interest and four rounds of informal meetings had happened. He had liked the people there, the role he was considered for and was awaiting their response. His team’s morale at ECL was at an all-time low, vitiated by the tension between him and TSR. Aditya’s still stance now worried his loyalists too. His patience had given way long back and with a startling clarity knew what TSR didn’t, that he “wanted it” no more. He would neither engage TSR in his futile attempts at one–upmanship nor retaliate in the same strain. His integrity would not be sacrificed at this stage of his career when their engagement would wreck the very business he had helped build over the past years.

The two girls finished their turn, the third one unfortunately stumbled and it was the boy’s turn to play again. Aditya could see the boy’s set jaw and the glint of steel his eye and knew this was it. The small kid’s determination brought about a surge of energy in Aditya too and he watched with fascination. With renewed vigor and grit the boy played. His movements were smooth and coordinated & he had wiped out the slate of his past error clean by opening up a new chapter in the play. The cars honking around them did not bother him. The girls were reduced to mere onlookers as the boy played with a calm competency. He actually felt sorry for the one who had stumbled. The cheats were only getting their just dues.

His cell buzzed. He was shaken up from his reverie. It was a similar ring that had him stare at a hellish two years, but the boys energy had suffused him with an optimism. “Hello, Aditya?” a faintly accented voice in English said, “Sven here, you are it, Congratulations, we shall talk later.” The blaring horns and vehicular sounds indicated the light had turned green. The choke in the road miraculously cleared. Aditya Buch, the new CEO of Bearings Inc felt the hum of the powerful engine as his car gathered traction. As it moved ahead he looked out & back, the boy was jumping in the air screaming "I won".

6 comments:

Bhagyashree said...

Interesting and inspiring... In todays corporate world or otherwise these happenings are common and you have to 'plot' your own path

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Actually too common and run of the mill...
Changing business environments have made this so,where nothing is supposed to be personal, you are here today & gone tomorrow. Its the western way that has crept in. I do not connect too much with this style though.

Its my belief that however much one is a professional & knows this aspect, the manner in which she/he would deal with it will always remain personal..
hence the surging emotions that come with it that cause drama in an Organization...disappointment/frustration/sadness at a loss/failure, jubilation/happiness/celebration of a success..etc so also the more negative ones of dislike/hate and levelling up the scores with people...the usual games people play

dotcomgirl said...

A wonderful read. The writing is so powerful, I could almost see what you were writing. And, I don't know why ur post reminded me of an old Hindi movie with Shashi Kapoor. I don't remember the name. It was a modern representation of Mahabharat.

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Lol..the movie you are wanting is 'Kalyug' directed by Shyam Benegal..in 1981 ..it was superb

Well this is my interpretation of what would happen in a corporate situation from an individuals perspective...when u want something that is almost within your grasp and yet slips away...the mindset of a person then...
More of a personal reaction to a corporate situation

hema said...

very interesting and u can actually imagine what all happened during the tenure of 25 years

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Thanks...truly wonder na? 25-30 years one gives to a career most of the times sacrificing family time, children growing up...but then there is also the joy of achievement and determination of self worth along with money...
Actually it is one big ride...the journey definitely being interesting.