Those were the days – mid seventies/eighties – when the Department of Electronics. (DOE) had a strangle-hold on import of computers to the country. Perhaps for a good reason – the country did not have enough foreign exchange to fund imports. The lakshman rekha was Rs 5 lakhs. To procure a computer system costing less than Rs 5 lakhs, one made an application to the DOE justifying why the import was necessary and waited on them for clearance. For pricier machines there was this long drawn public-tender process. In either case the DOE made sure importing computers was a tad easier than banishing poverty. It also led to some ingenious/ridiculous justifications put forward – a colleague of mine in Sales told me how a gym of a leading educational institute claimed it needed a machine with user-microprogramming facility (for those of you not in the know, it allowed you to design/micro-code new CPU instructions and deploy them in a writable control store)!
Before you mark it as a case in point against government controls, I must also tell you how many many institutions in those days recklessly used up scarce hard currency importing instruments and systems they did not need. For instance, it was not uncommon to see adjacent labs in the same facility each importing a top-of-the-line oscilloscope only to sit on the rack and collect dust. Misuse and abuse invite more controls. .
I digressed from the main story here. Back to where I was…
It is not difficult to imagine what all these meant to a small operation like ours that depended on margins earned on import of computers and the subsequent income from their support. Income from other operations – import of electronic instruments – subsidized our unit.
The fall-out was none of us got a raise in our salary for a stretch of 3 years or so. Annually the boss called us in at appraisal time to tell us we weren’t making any money, so any raise in salary was out of question. He was always a straight shooter and in this matter, we felt, he made sense.
And we were a bunch that needed stronger reasons to leave our jobs and we quietly went back to the trenches!
As for me, I came into industry fresh from my institute, filled with apprehensions about questionable motives and practices rumored to be followed in commercial enterprises. And this organization, quelled my fears, not appearing to be an agent of Satan from all I could see and hear. The colleagues were friendly and helpful. Not the least of all, changing a job within a few years of joining was unthinkable unless they forced you out. Cutting to the chase, I continued as did my colleagues.
At one point a reorganization was announced and a senior manager from Delhi was to take charge. The news was received with mixed feelings in Mumbai. The man designated from Delhi, a Punjabi to the boot, was a suspect in the eyes of the Mumbai-ites, considered as a slippery guy who always got away with whatever he did.
My fears reared their ugly heads once again. Punjabi’s are known to be tough’ians of a kind. What would he do to us?
A few weeks passed without any blow-up’s. And one afternoon, he called me to his cabin. Made me nervous as this was not the done thing. The bosses never talked or discussed anything one-on-one with rookies like us without the seniors around. And to heighten my agony I saw on his table the ominous red file carrying my name (these were personnel records).
As I sat before him in silence under his steady gaze waiting for the sword to fall, he said:
‘Look, I’ve gone through your red file,’ he paused.
‘And I’m shocked. I’m shocked to see what you’re drawing.’
Well, I couldn’t say about him – as for me, I was more than shocked – ‘paralyzed’ would be more apt.
‘Oh, sh**, this man…just as we feared. The ex-boss was a saint in comparison – yes, he did not give us a raise alright, but at least he didn’t cut our wages,‘ were my thoughts.
‘Give me some time- I’ll make sure it gets to where I think it should be. I cannot correct it right away. But I’ll do it, trust me.’
It took a while for the blood to resume its course thru my insides.
Well, in the following months and years he was everything but what we took him for in our first days.
In fact, over the years, he commanded unflinching allegiance, not coerced, from us that could be the subject of study for many a HR professional. And we enjoyed a great relationship with him that continues till today extending to families on both sides.
If you ask me what worked for him,
a) I would say he was a genuine person on and off track, liking his people and concerned about their interests. Hence there was no question of catching him ever off guard.
b) He was sensitive to individual’s problems and he sought as best a solution as possible within the organization framework. There were a number of instances where he found an acceptable way out of a seemingly intractable situation. This of course called for mutual trust, free communication and an understanding of compulsions on either side.
c) And he involved guys unreservedly on issues. So, often, it was a situation the team – that included him – had to jointly address without any need to display one-upmanship and go glory-hunting.
d) He did not play one against the other as many ‘successful’ mangers do. He was able to defuse an unpleasant situation when it arose by explaining one’s point of view to another. Not one to fan the flames.
When a major but friendly shake-up took place – the computer vendor, a MNC, took over the operations through direct presence – most employees moved to the new set-up for better work, compensation/amenities and a MNC brand value. His team took the changes in its stride and stayed back intact! And he wasn’t giving away goodies for retention.
The merit of fostering a team relationship that held fast under trying conditions – there were enough attempts by other players in that space we were in, to woo the guys away – did not regrettably get the attention it deserved, I thought. The bonds forged endure even today though in time we all have gone down different paths in our lives.
Lest you think it was all a cosy chummy family scene, when the occasion demanded he was his true self, a Punjabi no-nonsense tough’ian in getting us to perform on the track individually and collectively.
We fondly call him GRK. Guri Khanna was more a Guru than a Guri.
Credits: openclipart (teamwork bitterjug)