If there is even one successful person who says he/she did not either play politics or defend himself /herself against politics at work, I will show them a liar. Forget work, politics starts at home. Every relationship is transactional. Siblings play politics with each other, parents, extended family, friends, foes – everyone plays politics of some sort. If that is the case why are we surprised at the games played at the work place – these games are referred to as Office Politics ?
When I started working I was seen as this public school educated kid ( therefore entitled), who was picked up and placed at a Managerial position. I couldn’t have been there to learn and climb or it was not possible that I had something in me that the Company Management saw which could lead to a successful person, according to them I was just there coz I was entitled. I was a non technical person working in a technical field. The opportunities to show me up were numerous. To make it easier for those who wanted to trip me – I was outspoken. An outspoken person is just what office politicians wait for when every new recruit joins. Making such people fall was meant to be ridiculously simple.
Now, my engineering career started with the M I mentioned in my earlier Blog. Lets name him Muralidhar. I then had the Electrical engineer, who refused to meet me at site, Sriram. After the first episode Muralidhar was in place, behind me. With Sriram, who everyone was wary off, it was going to be more difficult. When I realised that he wasn’t going to come to me and acknowledge my position, I went to him. I also cultivated Vadhiyaar, his second in command. Sriram handled the company’s electrical work and was also the master of gossip at SI Madras. Then there was Menon, who managed the plumbing work. Somehow we got along well. With Sriram, I changed tack. I told him that I really needed his help to find my way around. I found out that we both loved cricket. Remember, I was only 22 years old. Work and how to survive and do a good job was all that I had on my mind. As I mentioned earlier I was the second youngest in the company, when you are young you must learn.
Virtually every evening I made my way to the HO at Montieth Court. At 5.30 pm, a few of us, including the GM, the Accounts Manager, Accounts supervisor and I or someone else who was there played carroms. Carrom time was no politics time. My schooling had instilled in me one very important way of life – no “tattling” or ” sneaking”. So, I never discussed any person or incident at these times. Soon, it became known that I was not the kind of person who tried to win favours by using my proximity to anyone. However, what I did not realize was that proximity to the top had its own pitfalls. On more than one occasion I was virtually ‘boycotted’ on the instructions of my boss as he was fed with stories by other colleagues. The worst perpetrator was a senior colleague who I trusted and opened up with during an annual conference. I did the non traditional thing – I confronted my boss. I stood in front of him and explained how he was wrong. When he mentioned that the aforementioned senior colleague had told him many things, which were unpleasant, I simply asked him whether he believed it was a one way conversation. Did the ‘sneaker’ tell you what he said ? When the issue was cleared what I did was go back to my chair and put the lesson in the storage room of my head.
Office politics is there at every level of Management. As a junior I always thought that it must be fantastic to be the GM or the MD. Sooner, rather than later, when I reached those posts I began to realise that the politics stayed and it was more fierce and cruel. No prisoners were taken. While posted to Bangalore I had to report to a retired service officer. When I think back, did I give him hell or was I innocent? I did everything I could to see that he never stamped on my toes and I also showed him up when he goofed. We were constantly at war. In retrospect I can imagine how frustrating it was to have a fellow like me as his number two. I was 25 and eager as ever to be the Branch Manager of the Bangalore branch. I suppose I should have supported him and propped him but I didn’t. There was, I believe , an inherent wariness between ourselves. More than that, I believe that the war was started by him and he didn’t expect the fierce response from me. In the end he was sacked and I was the promoted as the new Branch Manager of the largest branch of the largest real estate company in South India. At 26 I was still young for this post but one of the Joint MD’s told my GM – ‘ push Koshy into the water, lets see if he will swim’. The time of reckoning had arrived.
Now, I faced the challenge of handling colleagues who had suddenly become my subordinates. Folks much older, wily and experienced. That was when I had to use a combination of tact, stubbornness and charm. Remember, expect for a fresher who was my Secretary, I was again younger to everyone. I was impatient to perform but I had to learn patience. Real Estate went through a horrific period when there were too many commercial buildings and what we were developing, Barton Center on M G Road, was, to make it tougher, a leasehold property. No, not a 99 year lease but a 65 year lease. I will talk about that along with sales in another segment.
One thing I did not lack was energy and determination. I wanted to win. I wanted to do well. I tried hard to make the office environment one that was free of politics. I had a monthly round table Open House. Everyone was open to criticism by colleagues. Initially it wasn’t easy to get people to open up or accept criticism but eventually it happened. I remember I told my team – I want to make the environment at work one where everyone was happy to come to work on Monday morning. I survived and grew and then I left…that is another story.
In PU, my next company, I was a newbie, the Head no doubt but still a newbie among the veterans. Reporting was damn tough, the veteran staff were not used to approaching the Pope as they had access to God directly. Eventually the Pope told God, forward your staff calls to my number, else it is no point in having me here. I found a very good engineer who I promoted, was advised a lot by a lady colleague, removed the veteran sales head very politely. Again I left when I was peaking…in later years I realised that this was one flaw of mine..
While in Scotts, where I joined after PU, I was aggressive and resigned when I found I was not making any headway with the Delhi based colleagues. I was reinstated by the Management in Singapore and while I did what I had to do and more in the end I had a huge showdown with the executive Chairman. I always considered him a bit iffy in character and later events proved me right. I was getting there at work and managing politics but events beyond my control ended my stint with Scotts.
Then, at 34, I was CEO of a leading Property Development company – will refer to it simply as AWE. No, AWE was not such a big company then but even then it was becoming the largest in South India. It was filled with a large number of people who were set in their ways, lady colleagues who were too sharp for a newcomer. It was crazy yet a place where there was tremendous energy. Here there were two Gods, one the lesser God, the Boss and a Pope, me. Two engineering heads, one of whom looked at me with disdain. He coined the term CEO = Cheque Enquiry (Inquiry) Officer 🙂 . He was brilliant on the paperwork and documentation part of engineering but a terrible misfit at site. I just couldn’t understand why the Boss didn’t have him removed. I managed to have the two re-positioned and it was possibly a boon for this guy. In later years, as an entrepreneur myself I understood my former Boss’s dilemma. I handled the lesser God carefully and worked hard with the Boss. I believe I managed quite a bit but in the end I personally felt I was not a success, the kind I wanted to be. I left again while at a good space in my job and went to Oman.
In Oman, I had many opportunities to stave off political attacks and just when I won enough, I returned to India. Remember, all Middle Eastern countries have peculiar work cultures. There was no team, just each to his or her own. The work ethic was mercenary. The first battle was with a guy who was an engineer and a GM. We were virtually pitted against each other. The fellow wouldn’t allow the office boy, a Bangladeshi, to make tea for my visitors. When I asked him why he did this he said I had to learn to make my own tea. He wouldn’t release papers for printing either! Petty was his middle name. His wife was a brilliant PR lady and had all the wives of the owners ( a set of cousins) eating out of her palms with her version of Ayurveda and alternate medicine. The Husband went after me and did everything except strike the fatal blow. We were like a mongoose and a cobra. Now, who was whom I wont say but in the end my opponent packed up and returned home. Then I had my first battle with a racist Brit. Now, the few Brits I dealt with were all inherently racist but this guy, who was the General Adviser, took the cake. Boy, did I have a fight on my hands. I will not go into the depths the fights plumbed to except to say that the bloke told me I would die ( of course, it was only a figure of speech) if I opposed him and I told him that I would rather die than crawl in front of him. I did not beat him – he just made too many enemies and his fellow Brit , a wily guy too, was finally responsible to bring him crashing down. By the time I had established myself in Oman I had started work habits like the Quiet Half Hour, Saturday morning motivation talks, in rote and a few team building exercises. We had monthly meetings – meetings that were jokingly referred to as Samosa meetings ( you can guess why). I became the First Indian GM of a Division in the Company. My team enjoyed working under an Indian who was aggressive in his attitude. This was around the time Saurav Ganguly captained India in cricket. I guess India and Indians were changing.
The politics I faced as the Managing Director of VDB, were a different sort. Remember how I thought it would be great to be the MD. Hindsight, you crazy mirage, why weren’t you as clear when you were in the position of foresight? Managing different staff, understanding who needed help and who didn’t. Handling my erstwhile fellow Directors. All this was a different ball game. This was office politics from the top down. I think I failed pretty badly with my choice of staff, no, there is no doubt, I failed. My greatest weakness was investing time and energy into many wrong characters. Many of my team stayed with me for ages. However, I think my ability to discern failed me badly in my most crucial time. It was akin to Karna trying to pull the wheel of his chariot at the time he wanted it most. However, this Karna has not been killed as yet. He has been given another chance to work with the team he has, use more of his experience, trust less and be more hard-nosed. I am confident I will find a better mix and remove the weeds without killing the plants. Truthfully, we had good people but there is a big difference from being a fellow employee to being an employer. It took me a very long time to realise that.
I was never good at sourcing information, on colleagues, from members of the staff. I just couldn’t do it. Now, it appears that this is one of the keys to managing politics when you are an Owner. I still cannot do this and may never do it at all. However, I have learnt to listen to people. Listening is very important, you pick up the nuances. Don’t ever react. Just listen and do what you have to do with the information.
Office Politics, folks, is something that any professional will have to face and overcome. In the midst you should not do what your conscience dissuades you from doing. Remember your priorities, your way of life and most importantly your INTENT. In anything in life, if your INTENT is right, everything else will fall in place, eventually. Don’t ever crib that you failed because of office politics. Office politics is a part of the hidden portion of your KRA. Manage it or perish.
( This has been my longest Blog, but I hope there were some takeaways from this. I hope I can share somethings that I experienced, in a yet to finish story of my professional career)