2015-12-24_2151

My Bachelors program in engineering briefly touched upon management. Not industrial management, not personnel management or marketing management – just management.

In those days, there was just one kind of management – management. The world was beginning to wake up to the concept of management as a university course. Till then, it was a simple carrot and stick thing. If the carrot didn’t work, you applied the stick. Both, Alexander the Great and Temujin, had used it to great success. Papa Doc Duvalier didn’t even bother with the carrot and look where that got him – a villa in the south of France in exile, with $300 mill to play around with in nearby Monaco.

That just goes to show you how crappy the study of management really is. Back in the days, management was seen as a skill that you either had or you didn’t. Neil Armstrong’s calculated decision not to abort seconds before touchdown on the moon, when the lunar module’s fuel was running out and an alarm went off on the instrument panel, could not have been taught, no. The Tatas’ actions after the five-star Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai was overrun by terrorist vermin on Nov 26, 2008, generated incalculable customer loyalty, brand loyalty and employee reverence. Tell me if the Tatas’ selflessness had been taught in a management school?

You cannot be taught to be a good manager. There is nothing scientific about being a great motivator and achiever. Every member of the upper echelons on Wall Street is a management graduate and yet, America’s financial sector is the crappiest, most mismanaged, error-prone, filthy and greed-ridden corner of the business world.

I got my first taste of management through a hard-bound text book by an American named Phillip Cotler, in my second year of engineering. Phillip Cotler couldn’t have been anything but an American. Glib and ever ready to break everything down into chewable bits to demonstrate how easily problems in managing businesses can be solved, I doubt if he knew what true management really was.

We studied management with a sort of disinterested annoyance then, dismissing most of Cotler’s preaching as just BS.

But there was something he said which stuck – that an environment where everybody is dispensable is the only truly professional work environment. If one leaves, the environment is self-adjusting and self-regenerating, so that another can take over and hit the ground, running.

Today, I see Cotler’s words  making sense in every major event that is shaking our lives, if only for all the wrong reasons. Take for instance the single most talked about entity in the world today – ISIS. This terror group, which has got even the people of the mightiest nation on earth running shit scared, is a near-perfect vindication of the management guru’s words. The ISIS is like Phillip Cotler and whack-a-mole, rolled in one – kill one and another springs up and it is business as usual. Everybody, top down, is dispensable. If Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi gets blown to bits by a drone, ISIS is not going to cease to exist. Mullah Omar has been dead three years and the Taliban are not only still around but they are stronger than ever. I swear, the first thing that a rookie hears when he joins the ISIS or the Taliban is,’ If anything happens to me…..’

In a business environment however, Phillip Cotler is very wrong – true dispensability comes with an Achilles’ heel – the lack of commitment. If I know that I can easily be replaced or laid off, will I be a committed or engaged employee? I may mouth my commitment to my employers but at heart I won’t be. You might argue that insecurity forcibly builds creativity and enterprise and yes, for the extremely brave and talented it does, but the vast majority are folks who are just middling along – like me. Such folks need external stimulus, in order to be motivated employees and it is certainly not insecurity. Insecurity cannot help in motivating a mediocre worker. The stress makes his performance even worse.

A ‘middling’ performer like me would recognize an environment of dispensability as essentially a cold, heartless and exploitative one. Cotler’s dispensability principle would make me work against it in fact. It might even make me try my bestest to be indispensable, create my own cozy little niche no one can dislodge me from. I will try to build into the system, invisible loopholes that will ensure my niche is safe.

Wanting to be indispensable is a fundamental Darwinian survival instinct, the only one that is common to every living human being.

Many large corporations have whole departments that needn’t even be there at all, usually those that are not directly connected with operations. If you are in a department named Strategy & Business Development or Communications Strategy or Strategic Sourcing –any department with the word ‘strategy’ in it, you are in the list of potential lay-offs at the next downturn. That is the reason why these departments are constantly trying to justify their pathetic existences. Eliminate them and the organization may actually grow more efficient, besides saving thousands in salaries and benefits. But that won’t happen, because there is a whole ecosystem protecting them – involving managers, directors and going right up to the vice presidents – all of whom depend upon that department’s continued existence for their own.

Here is a pretty accurate thumb rule – usually the departments that post the maximum number of updates on the company intranet page about how gloriously they are performing or those that come up with all sorts of jargon, are the ones that can be eliminated (or at least cut down in size).

Where I work, I had a colleague, Noel, who looked after a manufacturing function for which he had prepared a ‘cookbook’ – a step by step procedure for new employees or transferées to follow in order to get up to speed in a zero-foul up, high-yield, high-stress environment. I have to admit that the cookbook was a very comprehensive training and orientation tool. No doubt, he had put in a lot of work in it. He had even received one of those cherished ‘Bravo’ medals for his work.

Curiously, Noel did not upload the cookbook into the departmental intranet portal so everyone could access it. He simply saved it on his own desktop and therefore no one could refer to it without going through him. Since he gave everybody the impression that he had done the cookbook on his own initiative, no one could insist he make it accessible. He pulled it off for quite a while since he had godfathers watching over him, guardian angels who had their own stuff tucked away, inaccessible to other guardian angels.

I do not know how Noel’s refusal to let the cookbook be freely accessible could have ensured his job security but I guess that an environment that is so fraught with unnecessary stress over one’s status, can make an employee clutch at any straw to ensure he stays afloat. In the end his cookbook didn’t save Noel’s ass.

Last week, this guy retired but the word is that he was given a choice – either retire with full pension benefits and a farewell party or be fired and lose everything, except the government-mandated four weeks’ pay. Noel obviously chose the former and a farewell was arranged for him. While we were on a beer, I asked him about the cookbook and wondered if he could email it to me before he cleared out his files from the system.

“I deleted everything,” he said with a dead-pan face. I looked at Noel and imagined Saddam burning his oil wells and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

The other universal principle that cannot be taught at management school, the one that is meant specifically for the ‘middlers’, is – ultimately we are all on our own and when the time comes, there is no way we can save our asses, no matter how hard we try. Therefore, grab what you can and grab it now. That is management.