Life of a Shadow – Part 2
The killing fields…
Not loving him is an act of treason. But that’s not why I love him. I love Sachin Tendulkar because I feel very happy every time he comes to bat. Like my billion patriotic countrymen, I too had tears in my eyes while watching him being carried on the shoulders right after India’s 2011 world cup triumph. It felt like such a befitting grand finale tribute to the sport’s greatest! And now I am doubly happy with the bonus round—the continuous stretching of the ending spectacle over various formats of the game. Indeed, I feel blessed to have lived in Sachin’s times.
But I am not happy to have missed Dheeraj Jadhav’s times. I am upset that Dheeraj didn’t get a turn to carry his legendary teammate on his shoulders after the world cup conquest. Over two decades of sunshine for our beloved Sachin, and not even two minutes of shadow for the discarded Dheeraj? The thought makes me very unhappy. And at this time, my unhappiness emotion is deeper than happiness. Deep enough that I don’t want to be just a mute spectator; I want to be a vocal commentator of the ball-game.
To be a good spectator, the prerequisite is a basic appreciation of the rules of the contest. However, to become a good commentator, the place to start is not the rules, rather the rule-makers of the game. There are three primary rule-makers in any ball-game—be it the sporting balls of cricket or the money balls of business. The first rule-maker is the fan, for it’s he who sponsors the game every time a stadium ticket is bought or a TV advertisement is watched; the corporate mapping of this fan is the paying customer. The second rule-maker is the star setting the tone of the game. Like any sport, every business also has these stars; for an IT services company, these stars generally sit on the converging positions of project hierarchies—such as the leads, managers, and senior executives. Finally, the third rule-maker is the selector of the team; this entity is the same as the CXO in any business. Together, these three entities control the destiny of anyone who aspires to score runs between their wickets.
Lost between the wickets…
Fan: Fans love being ‘into’ the game – the dreamy eyes in the thick of action, while the sneaky mind is busy playing trickery. For often the action on the field is merely an illusion, an outsourcing of our fantasy. It’s not the STAR who is scoring, it’s ME! Or at least, someone very close to ME. Like a close family member. The bigger the star, the closer he has earned his position in MY family. And when it comes to the family, whose chest doesn’t swell with pride for the tiniest of achievements? When my favorite star hits a half-century, I jump inside my TV and carry him on my shoulders. But when it comes to a stranger, the poor chap better hit a century to generate the same degree of excitement. Perhaps that explains why the number of ‘likes’ generated on Sachin’s profile exceed a whopping 175k mark, while Dheeraj’s profile on the same site has invoked a pathetic 87 (23 before my earlier blog came out)! That’s a disproportionate over a thousand-fold return for each base point difference in the performance! It is this lop-sided over-valuation that eventually makes our stars more important than the game itself!
Customer: The corporate world works on a different principle. Unlike a fan, the customer is not there for fun, but rather a matter of serious business. However, in the “interactive” characteristic, there is one stark similarity (particularly in the context of IT service industry). Like a fan, the customer is more influenced by what he ‘sees’, and disinterested in what goes on ‘behind-the-scenes’. And what he sees are his front-line leaders who allow him to sleep in peace. These professionals thus end up becoming his stars, often more important than the vendor itself. Losing these stars is not an acceptable proposition. The service organization, caught amidst a burgeoning demand-supply mismatch, caves into this insecurity. This results in a growing disproportionate gap between the remunerations & promotions of the stars vs. the rest. Sure, who doesn’t love working with a hero, but every now & then, a customer will do well to introspect—how much incremental value do I get for every gradient increase in the billing rate of my heroes?
Stars: A star is a vertical expert in his chosen area of expertise. He is a winning combination of immense talent and hard work, with eyes steadfast in the sky to achieve great heights. The world affectionately applauds his achievements by lifting him on the shoulders. Now suddenly the star’s horizon has expanded. From the elevated position, he can see the promising landscape far and wide. A vertical expert lured into horizontal aspirations! The fans are no longer gazing at a mere sportsman, but a smarter person in every role-model way. Even which drink is fuzzier—pepsi or coke—the star knows it all. In fact, all the bestowed endearments make him a better human being too. He loves giving back to the sport, and wants the world to see him selflessly assist his teammates in holding their heads proudly high. Of course, the only condition is that his view should not be obstructed; his shoulder needs to stay a head above everyone else! Can you blame him? After all, how fair it is to ask of a top-floor penthouse resident to move down to a viewless ground floor?
Executives: Our industry witnessed a phenomenal growth in the past couple of decades. Those who played crucial roles in this growth story reaped the harvest. A large number of stars mushroomed and converged on leadership positions in the corporate hierarchies all over—be it project, delivery, or business heads. No doubt, these heroes had well-earned their incredible success. However, a point that often gets overlooked is that their achievement is not merely an outcome of pure merits, but a combination of merit along with a huge luck advantage of ‘being at the right place at the right time’. As a result, we occasionally discover that the star’s elevated role has a serious mismatch with his original domain expertise. Unfortunately, by the time this realization sinks in, it is too late for reversal. For sometimes, the years of ‘general management’ ends up diluting our star’s original skill and he has nowhere left to go! And what do you do when you have nowhere to go? Stay where you are and voraciously guard your position from any challengers!
Selectors: Any profession where you can’t escape the public’s eye comes with an inflated pressure baggage: the fear of public humiliation! This psychological pressure on selectors is greater than the combined influence of politicians, fans, or stars. Don’t tinker with a tested lineup—goes the hypothesis. This way if the team fails to deliver, the blame can be squarely placed on the stars with fewer fingers pointing towards the selector. However, if the team continues to deliver, the selector lingers on with his job and fame (and perhaps, bonuses). It’s an easy job really, when all the selector has to do is pick those who are clearly visible from his box in the stadium, for only the ones sitting on shoulders are in the clear line of sight. Sure he doesn’t mind picking a new face every now and then—but for that to happen, the newcomer has to stand so tall that his head is visible above the one sitting on the shoulder!
CXOs: Interestingly, many CXOs operate under similar pressure. They are forever under evaluation eyes of the employees, customers, investors etc. The pain of losing in the short run is greater than the gain of winning in the long run. For this reason, they are most likely to pick a strategy that is least likely to fail than the one which is most efficient. And, generally, the things that have failed the least in the past involve a leadership role by a trusted hero (that’s how the heroes were born, to begin with). This dependency on our stars is how the ‘outsourcing’ of leadership begins in many organizations. The rolling down of accountabilities, rather than rolling up! The intent seemingly is the empowerment of the mid-layer leadership. In reality, however, it’s a convenient outsourcing of the senior leadership’s headache with the assumption that everything will be magically taken care of. It is this intangibility in accountability that makes senior leaders of many organizations ‘the men of inaction’ in the long run.
So where does this Bermuda Triangle (of fans/stars/selectors) leave our poor Dheeraj? Perhaps we can dare to dream something audacious here and start an ambitious social-media campaign to bring justice to Dheeraj? Fortunately Ana Hazare’s experience has taught us to be wiser, the public frenzy has a short shelf-life—such romantic escapades barely get you past the first hurdle. As one of my ex-national cricketer friends, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, once educated me: “Even if a newcomer finally makes it to the Indian cricket team, he will most probably be sent in at number 6 or 7 position, a time by when the game usually has already been won or lost.” And with such multiple hurdles, if the disadvantaged rookie’s odds somehow don’t work out in the first few games, he is history. But, of course, when it comes to our stars, everybody has more tolerance for their extended lean patch. You see, the world has a different set of rules for the ones sitting on shoulders versus those standing on the ground!
Clearly, this complex problem is no more about a mind game, but a shoulder game! You see, God meant for all men to be ‘shoulder-rubbing’ equals; unfortunately, mankind found the concept too boring. The fans can’t help lifting their stars on the shoulders—that’s what adds fizz in the game. Players can’t help their aspirations for the pedestal—this dream is what creates stars. Selectors can’t help leveraging their personal judgments—that’s what they are paid for. It is a futile exercise to change human mindsets.
The only solution is to move away from the perceptive humans, and bring in a fourth entity that is ‘blind’ to such shoulder-lifting traditions. An inhuman entity that has no opportunity to get influenced by what human eyes can “see” —its identity being a data-driven, emotionless IT system. Such an entity doesn’t eliminate the selector’s job, it just changes it. The selector’s job in this case starts and ends with the development and implementation of centralized system ideas (rather than enforcing his own)! The Moneyball movie elegantly demonstrates the power of this idea when applied to the game of baseball. The western sports clubs have been rapidly embracing this new way of thinking, and Indian cricket should not be too far behind. The corporate world, however, refuses to come out of the shadows. Only a rare few (such as Cybage through its ExcelShore) have shed their ego and are wholeheartedly pursuing these scientific “inhuman” thought processes for building fair and efficient organizations in the most “humane” ways.